Factories of the future

By Matthew Sundberg*
Wednesday, 04 May, 2011

Australia is yet to discover the real potential of automation in the manufacturing, mining and processing industries though many processes are already automated to a degree. As I see it, factories of the future will undergo a digital revolution, which will herald a new world of productivity excellence.

The fact is, transforming today’s factories to fully digitised production powerhouses is an economic priority. Australian industries simply cannot rely on servicing small domestic markets only. Instead, they need to be export oriented to gain economies of scale. Production needs to be more flexible and agile to survive in an increasingly competitive global environment. However, when faced with rising energy costs, skills shortages and an ageing workforce, productivity improvements at the plant is Australia’s remaining hope of competing with the ‘big guns’ overseas.

Imagine if factories could move from idea to finished product in a fraction of the time. Even the most complex products - and their associated production processes - could be designed and tested to perfection in the virtual world. This is happening today - Red Bull Racing engineers can develop the entire vehicle, design new components, assemble 4000 parts and put it through its paces all while sitting at a computer. However, advanced automation is what actually makes the virtual world a reality - it will seamlessly connect the plant with the world of digital product and production design.

By 2030, I see factories using advanced sensors to understand the day-to-day movements of the plant. With this new intelligence, we can develop a strong capacity for predictive maintenance to avoid unnecessary breakdowns. Sensors will essentially form a plant’s digital shadow, where all of its assets can be tracked and managed proactively.

Along with the digital shadow, advanced artificial intelligence will give the factory a sense of self-awareness. Energy consumption, production speed and raw material usage will all be optimised in real time to minimise costs and environmental impact, while meeting fluctuating demand. Self-learning with limited human interaction means factories continually improve, learning from past outcomes.

Advanced HMIs will also become an integral part of the plant. Robots will work intimately with humans to increase productivity and quality, without compromising safety. Wireless, high-speed communications will connect modular production equipment and sensors on a common protocol, allowing greater flexibility. Changes in production and operating environments can be responded to swiftly.

So, why invest in automation? Energy and raw material costs are rising. Automation can optimise energy and raw material usage with the added bonus of lowering input costs, enabling businesses to become more competitive and greener at the same time. In addition, skills shortages and an ageing population make advanced technologies more important to produce more from our dwindling workforce. Product life cycles are becoming shorter, mass customisation is preferred over mass production and global competition is increasingly fierce, especially with the advancement of China and India. Through automation and digitisation, I see a future where Australian-made products are known for quality and innovation, successfully competing on the world stage. But to deliver to the world, we need to be seamlessly connected by strong communication and logistics networks.

It’s not a matter of whether but more rather when we should invest in the latest technologies. And, the answer is now - especially if we want to keep mining, manufacturing and processing in Australia.

*After completing his Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Commerce, Matthew Sundberg commenced as a graduate engineer at Siemens. Soon after, he was selected to be part of the Siemens Picture the Future: Australia 2030 research team where he conducted comprehensive studies on productivity and energy.


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