Global engineering and design consultancy Arup has released a new report ‘Rethinking the Factory’ that explores the future of manufacturing through emerging trends, processes and technologies.

Developed by Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation and Science and Industry teams, the report examines how the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printing, self-cleaning and self-healing materials, and human-robot collaboration are transforming the manufacturing landscape and will lead to faster, more efficient and environment-friendly production.


Man, machines and materials

Though robots are expected to replace humans in the factories of the future, Arup’s report suggests human-robot collaboration will be an important element of manufacturing. The integration of cameras and smart sensors already allows robots to adapt to their external environments. As robots progressively become more intuitive, their ability to infer a full task after being shown just a portion of it will enable workers to serve as robot supervisors, operating machinery and controlling smart production processes such as programme and systems management and data analysis, rather than participating in manual labour. As factories become more technology-driven, there will be greater demand for employees with STEM skills, further exacerbating the international skills shortage, set to reach 40 million by 2020.


^ Future of Factories (C) Arup

Beyond machines, new materials have the potential to improve the production process and increase product performance. A variety of self-healing and self-cleaning materials are being developed such as bio-inspired plastic, which replicates the strength, durability and versatility of natural insect cuticles and is capable of repairing damage without human intervention. These technologies will extend the lifetime of manufactured goods and reduce demand for raw materials.

Big data, technology and 3D printing

The increasing acceptance of 3D printing or additive manufacturing technologies will allow manufacturing to be more mobile and dispersed. Factory locations are, therefore, likely to become more varied and closer to the consumer, leading to the emergence of non-traditional spaces such as small offices in a city centre. This will allow production to take place closer to the point of use, lowering transport costs and emissions.

Intelligence based on big data, advanced analytics and the Internet of Things will create new opportunities for competitive advantage. Analysis of data will reveal detailed customer insights, identify new product opportunities sooner, and get new products and designs to market faster. Additive manufacturing and digital technologies will also make this mass customisation, faster, easier and more affordable.


^ FlexLean Production Line. c Zen Wave

Resilient and adaptive spaces

Flexibility will be a major factor in meeting changing consumer demands and shifting market trends. Modular building techniques will make factories more adaptable and scalable, enabling diversification of production across various locations. This will also allow energy, water and material consumption to be optimised in an increasingly constrained resource market, while producing an environment best suited to meet the multiple needs of its highly skilled workforce. 

Use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) tools in factory design, planning and management will play a critical role in allowing manufacturers to foresee and mitigate issues based on access to resources, location choices, weather risks and transportation needs.

Factories will be designed with greater focus on consumer experience, with the concept of the ‘transparent factory’ gaining increased importance as more people get involved in making products, or as they expect closer insight into how products are manufactured, especially at a customised level. The opportunity for factory owners and operators lies in adapting their existing spaces to enable these types of experiences to take place.

As the physical and digital worlds converge, manufacturers have to continue to adapt and adopt new processes quicker than ever before, the report notes. This can be achieved by developing sustainable and resilient practices as well as by accessing a skilled pool of workers. It’s therefore critical that companies and policy-makers have a comprehensive understanding of the changing manufacturing landscape.

Rethinking the Factory is part of Arup’s ‘Future of…’ series that envisages the possible futures by highlighting innovations from around the world. Previous reports include the ‘Future of Highways’, ‘Future of Rail’, ‘Cities Alive’ and It’s Alive’.