What does the factory of the future look like?

Antony Bourne, global industry director at IFS, outlines some of the key traits that he thinks will define manufacturing centres in the coming years.

Antony Bourne, industry director, IFS
Antony Bourne, industry director, IFS

One of the perks of my role as Industry Director is that I get to spend a lot of time with customers and prospects, helping to better understand their challenges and objectives.

This involves getting to visit some of the most cutting edge and innovative factories around the globe.

The factory of the future is a topic that often comes up in conversation, so I’ve outlined below some of the key traits that I think will define manufacturers in the years to come.

Think local – factories are going to be more varied and distributed than they are today. Manufacturers will have smaller facilities and more of them so that they have better access to local resources, can react faster to customer demand and have a lower eco-footprint. This will ultimately help manufacturers to streamline the supply chain, be more agile, and speed up delivery of products to customers. However, we will still see some super-factories where the larger pieces of equipment will be made/ assembled.

Increasing role of technology – with the manufacturing supply chain becoming more localised, digital will play a greater role, driven by the growth in technologies such as 3D printing. According to Gartner, spending on 3D printers will rocket from $1.6bn (£993.6m) to $13.4bn between 2015-2018, with global shipments surpassing the 2.3m mark. With demand increasingly pulled by the customer, product blueprints will soon be downloadable and printable within local warehouses, so that small order parts can be printed on-site. I’ve talked about the impact of 3D printing in further detail here.

With the increasing use of cloud computing and focus on the Internet of Things, manufacturers are looking to create a new generation of intelligent objects that are able to provide them with real-time data. This enables manufacturers to provide better after-service to customers, using sensor data to manage maintenance and upgrades once the product has gone into the field. Additionally, this data will feed into future product design as well as helping to optimise production processes.

Greater collaboration – we will see much more collaboration than what we see today. For example, we’ll see more manufacturers working in partnership with universities in order to tap into highly skilled graduates. We’ve seen Loadhog doing this to some degree by establishing an apprentice-swap scheme with one of its major suppliers, Luxus, to enhance the learning experience of each company’s apprentices. They’ve also set up a purpose built creative workspace and engineering workshop, including modern 3D printing facilities, at their head office in Sheffield.

These are two of the many schemes that helped the company win the Manufacturing Advisory Service Award for People Effectiveness at this year’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Manufacturing Excellence Awards 2014. We’ll continue to see the barriers between R&D, engineering and production broken down as factories innovate in this space.

Configurability – factories will increasingly be designed so that if the market changes then the warehouse layout can be modified to be more efficient. Rather than today’s fixed shop-floor layout, everything from workspaces and machines will have multiple configurations to better respond to customer demand.

Culture change – we’ll see the culture of manufacturers change, as well as the perception from the outside world. No longer will factories be seen as a dirty, greasy environment, but open and networked. The majority of factories that I’ve visited this year have a far more modern, fresh and clean layout; looking more like an office block than a manufacturing plant.

I’m sure that many of you reading this will have observed some of the above already happening within the industry, and perhaps I’m just scratching the surface here. It certainly fills me with confidence that the UK manufacturing sector is leading the way when it comes to innovation, particularly in light of the latest ONS figures showing slowdown in manufacturing growth.

I’d love to hear any other concepts that you’re seeing emerge that will define the factory of the future.