With digital technology reaching an inflection point, manufacturers have a critical choice to make. They can continue to digitize individual factory functions, making them more efficient, or begin to integrate digital capabilities across the factory. The digital factory, which integrates all functions, internal and external, is a horse of a different order. It will change the nature of manufacturing—from mass production to product customization—and allow companies to respond instantly to changes in customer demand or the inevitable production variation, such as supply disruption. It can lead to gains in productivity, performance, output, and market share as well as better control and visibility in the supply chain, and digital innovation can help manufacturers create capacity to enable more profitable growth.
Two current examples
We don’t entirely know what the digital factory will look like when all is said and done. But we can get a glimpse of what it could be by looking at a few forward-thinking companies. At the Fujitsu plant in Augsburg, Germany, as customer orders are received, parts are picked for assembly by robots, loaded onto self-driving electric vehicles, and transported to production stations. Product changes can be made immediately by onsite teams. There is less downtime because predictive maintenance procedures automatically address incipient problems. The entire production process is paperless, the factory leaves virtually no carbon footprint, and the daily output makes the plant among the most productive and cost-effective in the world.
At Adidas’ new “speed factories” in Germany and Atlanta, automated production lines are able to make and ship a pair of expensive, customized cross-trainers from start to finish in about five hours. By comparison, in Adidas’ less digital factories the process can take several weeks. According to the company, the speed factories will more than pay for themselves in the next few years when they are scaled up. In particular, the speed factories are expected to slash the long lead time for new shoe designs and allow Adidas to react quickly to customer preferences.
Next generation uses
Much of the impact of digital manufacturing will come from significant advances that are still evolving. For example, robots that can learn through repetition rather than programming would give workers the opportunity to train machines quickly to tackle multiple tasks, flexibly shifting robots from job to job. It will also not be surprising to see drones transporting a missing part to an assembly station and surveilling equipment performance or production flow.
Manufacturers that decide to move ahead with creating an integrated factory should adopt a realistic roadmap. Here are six key ideas to keep in mind as you move ahead:
We can get a partial picture of the benefits of a fully digital factory by looking at current initiatives. The results to date are impressive, and the benefits will continue to unfold as the technology and operational design implications mature. It’s clear that the digital integration of factories is the wave of the future—a future that is approaching rapidly. Are you prepared?