The future factory: Nine tech trends in the production line

Factories are becoming engines of mass customization that can respond quickly and effectively to changing customer and market demands. They will be highly automated, data-powered hubs where machines, software and humans work together collaboratively.

1. Reprogrammable robots. Not long ago, manufacturing production lines were home to individual robotic arms, generally capable of only one specific task. Today, reprogrammable robots that can perform different tasks are becoming increasingly common. According to Boston Consulting Group, “Compared with conventional robots, advanced robots have superior perception, integrability, adaptability and mobility. These improvements permit faster setup, commissioning and reconfiguration, as well as more efficient and stable operations.” They even have two arms and hands so that they can perform tasks just like human workers can. According to the International Federation of Robotics World Robotics 2019 report, investment in industrial robots reached a record $16.5 billion in 2018, and shipments will grow 12% per year from 2020 to 2022.

2. Cobots on the rise. Collaborative robos – or cobots - are more agile and responsive than industrial robots, they are equipped with sensors that let them sense human presence and they can power down instantly if a human worker is too close and in potential danger. Cobots are already deployed in the BMW Mini plant in Oxford, UK, where they have helped speed up production and make workers safer. Industry analysts at Interact Analysis predict that cobots will account for 30% of the total robot market by 2027.

Cobot market 2027

3. Mass personalization. The modern consumer expects an experience tailored to his/her demands and expectations, and that means personalization. The clothing industry is leading the way in the personalization economy, and consumer electronics is close behind, with 29% of American consumers saying they have personalized these products. Digital manufacturing of the future will work to compressed development times, which lets companies create iterations faster. A good example in retail is Nike offering its personalized shoe service to customers via their Nike ID online platform: Nike is specifically targeting the Greater China market, which is home to 350 million tech-savvy millennials who want uniqueness married to a fun shopping experience. Expect to see personalization on an increasingly bigger scale moving forward, particularly if, as reported by Aberdeen, the trend for companies that implement customization into their manufacturing see a 62% savings reduction in production downtime.

4. 3D printing. 3D printing will challenge the traditional mass manufacturing model at the most fundamental level: it poses the possibility of established manufacturing and supply chains no longer giving companies a competitive edge and will require them to be more agile in their operations. 3D printing will lower the barriers to entry and will enable manufacturers to become more responsive to customer demands. It impacts personalization, as evidenced already by IKEA launching concept versions of bespoke ergonomic add-ons for desks and keyboards, developed in partnership with UNYQ, a company that prints 3D prosthetics. The target for the desk and keyboard attachments are gamers who want customized accessories. But the potential for 3D printing goes far beyond customization. It will empower companies to launch products more quickly. The Wohlers Report 2019 forecasts $35.6 billion in 3D printing industry growth by 2024.

5. Computer vision. In manufacturing, computer vision (CV) can complement humans in that its attention does not wander and so does not risk getting distracted like human workers can and missing something or making a mistake. Or an example where CV can do something a human worker can’t, might come in scanning and observing more closely than people can. Business & Decision, an Orange company, has worked with a pharmaceutical company to use AI and CV to detect and analyze bacterial growth in petri dishes that contain samples of vaccines in production for quality assurance purposes. The model could also work in predictive maintenance, where CV can spot minute failures in equipment that human eyes can’t.

6. Data and analytics. Manufacturers are generating vast amounts of data through their operating technology (OT) and systems in general, and it will play an increasingly significant role in uncovering critical information that enables smarter operations and drives the business forward. Whether on the production line itself, in the supply chain or in procurement processes, advanced analytics helps identify patterns and dependencies within exciting systems, from which you can make better-informed decisions. Benefits include specific areas like predictive maintenance to help reduce downtime and waste; automatic quality testing that also saves time and reduces human errors; product optimization, where data is analyzed to identify parameters that cause variable levels of quality or efficiency in product manufacture; and supply chain optimization, where data analytics can provide on-time delivery and resolve storage issues. Big data analytics in the manufacturing market has been forecast to grow at a CAGR of 31% between 2020 and 2025.


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7. Ecosystem innovation. As in many business sectors, ecosystems will provide the key to success moving forward for manufacturing. Manufacturers struggle when they are constrained and their production networks are too rigid: a dynamic ecosystem, which lets manufacturers shift resources and activities around manufacturing networks in response to market developments or changes in demand, can help them address an increasingly complex and expectant consumer. Third-party partners that bring a diverse set of capabilities to the ecosystem table can help manufacturers improve flexibility, responsiveness and overall performance. The ecosystem approach is captured in the Orange Internet of Enterprises play, where we encourage co-innovation and give our partners the forum in which to do that. Data is the key, technology is an enabler, and ecosystem partners provide the foundation to help manufacturers tackle all kinds of problems and reduce costs in their organizations. Leveraging an ecosystem will empower manufacturers to grow their businesses and deliver more value to more satisfied customers.

8. Enhanced reality. Combined, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can help manufacturers improve products and save money: by deploying goggles that employ cameras, depth sensors and motion sensors to place images onto the real working environment, production-line workers and engineers can have a better, more accurate perspective on how parts and instructions go together to assemble a particular product or component correctly. Aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin has already deployed AR/VR technologies to allow engineers to work 30% faster and have improved accuracy up to 96%. VR and AR can also be used to remove the need to build full-scale concept models, often a costly exercise: AR and VR let engineers see all the components involved in a product’s design and enable them to create virtual models before going to physical production. Boeing says this approach has already enabled it to reduce training time and costs by 75% per employee.

On top of AR and VR, exoskeletons have great potential in manufacturing: wearable IoT-enabled devices put on by workers can protect production line workers from injury and augment their capabilities, such as enabling them to lift heavier objects. Manufacturers can see benefits in terms of reduced accident and incident levels, increased productivity and improved worker morale.

9. IT/OT cybersecurity threats. Manufacturers are now increasingly under threat from cyberattacks, and not just from the traditional threat vectors of stolen intellectual property or ransomware. In today’s more connected world, attackers can go as far as making production lines start producing faulty equipment or even shutting down a plant's operations altogether. The Chubb Cyber Index found that cyber incidents in manufacturing increased by 147% over the past three years, and that in 2018, 86% of cyber incidents in the manufacturing industry came from an actor or individual outside the organization.

For more information, read about the predicted impact of 5G on the manufacturing sector, and download this exclusive Industry 4.0 whitepaper from Roland Berger containing interviews with manufacturers at the cutting edge.