13 min read

Production processes are being optimised, delivery times reduced and human workers are making way for robots. Welcome to the smart factory of the future.

The year is 2045. Your smart watch beeps. It’s time to get up for work.

You hop into your driverless pod and it takes you to a large industrial building. Inside, there’s not one person on the factory floor. Instead, hundreds of bots are lifting, sorting and packing products.

It’s a big change from what you remember in 2018.

The factory production line is dependent on hundreds of devices. This includes everything from the conveyor belt and thermometers, to the overhead lights, air conditioning unit and uninterruptible power supply (USP) system. Traditionally, these mechanisms operated in silos. But thanks to the Internet of Things and greater technological innovation, the factory is becoming a connected haven.

Understanding Industry 4.0

We’ve come a long way since the first Industrial Revolution, when skilled textile artisans were replaced with steam-powered machines operated by relatively unskilled workers.

Since then, industrial facilities have witnessed a great number of further changes. The advent of electricity spurred on the assembly line, while computers have brought about higher levels of precision on the factory floor.

Today, we’re in the middle of what many call Industry 4.0 – a period characterised by intense automation and greater connectivity between parts.

The impact of Industry 4.0 and smart factories on the economy is substantial. According to Capgemini, smart factories could add anywhere between $500 billion to $1.5 trillion in value to the global economy in the next five years.

In the next five years:

  • Manufacturers can expect on-time delivery of finished products to accelerate by 13 times
  • The cost of Capex & Inventory will be rationalised at 12 times the rate of improvement since 1990
  • The cost of material, logistics and transportation will be rationalised at 11 times the rate of improvement since 1990

Research from the UK government’s Made Smarter report expects Industry 4.0 to boost the UK manufacturing sector by £455 billion, while creating 175,000 jobs and cutting CO2 emissions by 4.5%.

The future looks positive. And it’s mostly down to big data.

By connecting different aspects of the manufacturing process, autonomous machines and human teams can work together to maximise efficiency and productivity.

Smart factories can use real-time data being produced by sensors along the production line to instantly alert factory managers of bottlenecks, help with inventory tracking and lead to better predictive maintenance. Over time, patterns in data can lead to greater insight and this can be used to create strategies that further limit production downtime and lead to more efficient operations.

So who’s doing this, and where?

Exploring today’s smart factories

Today a number of innovative companies are adopting industrial digital technology. They’re revolutionsing their respective sectors by using AI, data analytics and robotics to create connected production facilities of the future.

Here are just a few of them.

Showcasing German efficiency at Siemens

“We build things and learn a lot from that; for instance, what it takes to have an entirely digitised factory. We’ve worked hard to get to the present point.”

—Tony Hemmelgarn, CEO and President, Siemens PLM Software


Location: Amberg, Bavaria, Germany

German manufacturers have long been at the forefront of efficient production, so it’s no surprise they’re leading the way in smart factories. Many have cited Siemens’ Amberg factory as the finest example in automated manufacturing yet.

At only 108,000 square feet, the building is relatively small. However, it manages to produce more than 1,300 different products at a rate of over a million per month. And with about 75% of production at Amberg computerised, the output tends to highlight quality as well as quantity.

Siemens claims the secret is in creating a digital twin of the production chain. This is epitomised in the manufacturer’s PLM (product lifecycle management) software that allows engineers and designers to collaborate in a completely virtual setting. As a result, products can be designed and tested without the need for creating any physical prototypes. The PLM software even allows the factory layout and workers to be simulated for truly realistic virtual prototype.

As well as software, Siemens is also looking into introducing augmented reality glasses. The company’s researchers have been collaborating with Facebook’s Oculus Rift to create digital glasses that can show the status of machines when workers glance at them. For Siemens, every minute counts.

Sources: IndustryWeek, Engineering

Credit: Ioannis Oikonomou

By connecting different aspects of the manufacturing process, autonomous machines and human teams can work together to maximise efficiency and productivity

Automated warehouses and the future

Rolls-Royce and smarter engine production

“We are running between 12 and 45 hours without any [human] intervention compared to every half-hour before.”

Mark Turner, Head of Manufacturing, Rolls-Royce


Location: Washington, Tyne and Wear, UK

Rolls-Royce are the world’s second largest aero-engine maker and the leader in turbines for long-haul passenger jets. The company produces fan and turbine discs in its factory in Washington, located in the north-east of England. Recently, it has adopted changes to its manufacturing process, which have allowed the company to cut the production time of making complex nickel alloy discs in half.

Rolls-Royce has achieved this by implementing 30 smart machines, each the size of a small truck. Where once human operations required 118 hours to make one of the disc’s components, these machines can do the same job in only 30 hours.

The cutting process has also been streamlined. Traditionally, a cutting machine was used to do the difficult task of cutting complicated slots into the alloy discs. The machine was cumbersome to use and took 24 hours to set up. Now, with robotics, it can be achieved in a mere 25 minutes.  

A few hours away in Rotherham, Roll-Royce’s turbine blade factory is also embracing smart technology. Before, to create the wax patterns that form the core of a turbine blade, three people were required over an eight-hour shift. Now, a robot can complete the task within an hour. It’s also a double-win for Rolls-Royce. Not only are they saving in labour costs, but with less human involvement, precision rates have also improved.

Source: FT

Amazon: the king of fulfillment centres

“We’ve changed, again, the automation, the size, the scale many times, and we continue to learn and grow there.”

—Brian Olsavsky, CFO, Amazon (via Business Insider)


Location: Various

Globally, Amazon has 80 fulfillment centres. And while these carefully located centres can help speed up delivery processes, it’s not the only element at play.

Amazon Fulfillment Technologies (AFT) is using robotics and machine learning to achieve shorter delivery times. The robots are made by Kiva (the robotics company Amazon bought in 2012) and there are currently 45,000 robots in use across 20 warehouses.

These robots are rearranging and restocking shelves, and carrying goods to workers for packing. They’re controlled by a central computer and use markers on the floor to help themselves navigate. The result is a factory floor where robo-workers can move at much faster rate than the standard human walking time.

As well as this, Amazon are still working on their much publicised drone experiments to expedite delivery times. While they’re still facing barriers, small victories are being made. In 2016, Amazon made its first drone delivery to a house in Cambridge. It took the drone 13 minutes to deliver an Amazon Fire TV and a bag of popcorn to a customer. However, US Amazon customers may have to wait a little longer to see such action. Whereas Amazon was granted permission to test the drone in the UK, the FAA in the US still rules that drones must operate within a pilot’s line-of-sight.

The future of smart factories

Credit: Ioannis Oikonomou

Robotics and cheaper connectivity are improving output, reducing costs and boosting profits, but smart factories must provide benefits beyond efficiency savings

Ocado and its state-of-the-art packing

“I’m of the opinion that AI can be made to be of the best of us, rather than the worst of us. Of course it’s a very disruptive and transformative technology that can be used for bad, but I’m an optimist. We could use it to help solve all sorts of problems in our society as well as making our businesses more efficient and improving our lives.”

—Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado (via Computing)


Location: Andover, Hampshire, UK

At Ocado’s Andover warehouse, a fleet of 1,100 robots are packing thousands of grocery orders every week. These machines move along a grid using an air traffic control system to make sure no collisions occur. They’re small, battery operated and can move at a top speed of 4m per second. Each robot is estimated to travel between 50 and 60km every day.  The result? The average order of 50 items only takes five minutes to pick and pack.

Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado, is buzzing with excitement. Speaking to Forbes, he said: “We call the robots a swarm because they collaborate like a swarm of insects. If one of the robots get[s] sick, any of the others can take its place.”

Elsewhere in the country, in Erith, south London, Ocado are set to install a robot hand that can carefully handle different types of fragile fruit. This has proved a difficult task in the past with robots unable to handle irregular and easily bruised items. Meanwhile, at Ocado’s Greenwich depot, the online supermarket is also testing driverless delivery trucks.

Sources: Ocado Technology, The Verge

3D printing at BAE

“The whole essence of what we do here is making sure we have an ‘end-to-end’ future-proof set of processes, which can be deployed into a project and operates as a shared service for the benefit of the business as a whole or utilised to support industrialisation requirements.”

—John Dunstan, Head of NPPDC at BAE Systems


Location: Samlesbury, Lancashire, UK

BAE has been making a significant number of parts using 3D printing (otherwise known as additive manufacturing) for the last few years. However, only recently has the British aerospace manufacturer been exploring new capabilities of additive technology. They’re using 3D printing to create more modern parts while pre-empting the lack of specialised engineering skills in the future.

There are clear benefits. 3D-printed parts tend to be much lighter and require only one piece of plastic, rather than several moulded glass cloth pieces, meaning there are savings in production times. 3D printing also allows BAE to take full advantage of CAD modelling, allowing designers to incorporate features previous processes couldn’t accommodate.

Source: Innovate UK

What the future holds

For manufacturers, the rise of robots and cheaper connectivity is positive news. It’s improving output, reducing costs and boosting profits. But for smart factories to find long-term success, they must be able to provide benefits beyond efficiency savings. Employees need to feel real benefits — and not feel as if they’re being constantly monitored or being outdone by a robot.

Yet the true test for smart factories will be their ability to evolve with the times. Shifts in consumer demand, introduction of new products or services, and expansions into new markets must be catered for. Otherwise we can expect another industrial revolution on our hands.