Shaping future production landscapes

KUKA Robotics Australia Pty Ltd

Monday, 27 June, 2022


Shaping future production landscapes

The three key factors of people, technology and adaptation will form the basis of future successful production environments.

One thing is certain: the very first ripples of the megatrends announced by futurologists were enough to shake entire branches of industry to their very foundations. Digitalisation, in particular, is steamrolling its way through the entire field of industrial production. Transformation towards a globally networked and integrated economy is making itself felt in all sectors. We are therefore at a juncture in which it is apparent that the mechanisms we use to act and the way we manufacture are undergoing fundamental change.

Most companies are currently focusing on using new technologies to make selected processes more flexible or to increase output. Flexibility and efficiency are key building blocks in the production environments of the future. However, companies need to take a step further and consider how holistic and sustainable solutions can be implemented to gear production environments towards dynamic market changes.

Questioning established decision-making

Faster, bigger, cheaper — this credo has been considered irrefutable in industry for over a century. Stronger throughput performance and faster conveyors helped to make production a little more efficient each year. Over the decades, this approach ensured relatively continuous improvement in cost-effectiveness on the basis of economies of scale.

The first approach to ensuring continued success is often the automation of processes. There are still sectors and production processes with great potential for increasing efficiency through intelligent automation processes. For this reason, it is always worth checking what positive cost effects this key measure can trigger in your own company.

But is this enough to continue improving production processes in the future? Even when the quantity and quality of machines and systems have been optimised and all potential effects of scale have been exploited to the full?

Gearing production to the dynamic ground rules of the market

It is to be expected that highly efficient, intelligent automation solutions will play a pivotal role in future production environments. Anyone failing to exploit this potential in time will almost certainly be quickly squeezed out of the market. Furthermore, new ground rules that are considerably more dynamic apply in the digital world. In order to stand out from the competition, one thing is more important than anything else: companies must have production facilities that can adapt quickly to changing general conditions. It makes no difference whether these arise from disruptive new business models, technological development, the trend towards customisation or attractive jobs in times of demographic change.

Focusing on the versatility of the company

In the future, companies must be able to adapt not only their technical infrastructure and supply chain quickly to new market conditions, but also their business models, the nature of their customer relationships, their customer support services and the availability of essential resources — in the worst case, all at once and under enormous time pressure. Companies that have already integrated a continuous learning and change process into their day-to-day operations and are therefore characterised by a high degree of versatility are at a clear advantage in these change processes.

Overcoming a one-dimensional focus on efficiency

In order to identify the key factors that are relevant for the successful production of the future, decision-makers need to realise that the one-dimensional focus on the conventional factor of ‘efficiency’ will not bear sustainable fruit. This is because no matter how efficient a company is, it needs to remain open to change, regularly review operations and take a critical look at standpoints that have always gone unchallenged.

This, in turn, requires a holistic approach that takes into account the complexity of the world in the aftermath of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Successful companies will be able to respond to technical innovations, societal developments and global factors such as climate change and scarcity of resources to an unprecedented extent and faster than ever before.

Analysing megatrends

Exact predictions of the future are simply not possible. Nevertheless, in the field of innovation management, the analysis of megatrends has become an established tool for predicting future developments. Megatrends enable prognoses that can be used to derive reliable forecasts of market developments and the resulting requirements for your own company.

The megatrend of demographic change — the workforce of the future

Since humans are indispensable as the driving force in production, companies will have to master two tasks in the future. The first of these is to promote the health, skills and motivation of the existing workforce. The other is to facilitate the integration of young employees into complex production processes. Here companies must position themselves as attractive employers — with holistic production systems. Intelligent automation solutions have a valuable contribution to make in creating an appealing working environment and preventing personnel shortages.

Countering demographic change with robotics and automation

If the average age of people working in production increases, it will become all the more important to automate strenuous, hazardous or harmful tasks completely or to provide long-term relief with robots assisting human employees by means of direct interaction. Robotics and automation can take on repetitive tasks in particular, thereby alleviating the shortage of skilled labour in many production processes.

The megatrend of digitalisation — multiplication of possibilities

The collection, analysis and saving of data in real time is rapidly changing industrial processes. Digital twins, cloud and big data are increasingly determining the lifecycle of products — from development and manufacturing through to maintenance. Companies need to recognise the fact that the megatrend ‘digitalisation’ has triggered the greatest evolutionary leap forward in decades — and this impact is increasingly affecting production.

Digitalisation is a socio-technical transformation process

Digitalisation must not be reduced to a merely technical phenomenon. It is a socio-technical transformation process that will change our society in virtually all areas of life, resulting in a whole new level of complexity. Companies with a vision for the future are drawing two important conclusions from the megatrend of digitalisation.

  1. Ecosystem-based action: In an age of digitalisation, only companies that see themselves belonging to different ecosystems and embrace a global community will be successful. Such a community offers internal and external connectivity, multiplies interfaces to relevant developers, suppliers and innovators. It helps to intensively maintain and benefit from a global, cross-sector network.
  2. Fusion of humans and technology: Only companies that see humans and machines as partners whose respective strengths complement one another are in a position to recognise technological potential and leverage it to the full. In order to ensure a fusion of human abilities and technology, however, companies must increasingly invest in the integration of efficient human-machine interfaces.

The megatrend of customisation — rediscovering the individual

The new variety of life philosophies is resulting in greater individualisation, which in turn is fundamentally changing consumer behaviour. Driven by rapid technological transformation and global networking, the megatrend of customisation is affecting the requirements on manufacturing companies worldwide.

The trend is making one thing clear: the more deeply users’ personal identities are anchored in products, the more intensively they identify with the products. Consequently, products must give users the feeling that they were made especially for them. However, personalised production is characterised by changes in special features. The optimal batch size in customised production, assuming products are perfectly adapted to customer requirements, is 1. The challenge will be to implement this ideal in the context of high-yield industrial production.

Successfully and cost-effectively implementing a batch size of 1

In most industries, batch size 1 production at anything approaching series-production costs is virtually impossible at present. The objective in customised mass production is to maintain overall plant effectiveness. The challenge here lies in preventing performance and quality from declining in comparison with series production.

Figure 1: The aim of mass customisation is to produce customised product ata cost similar to mass production. Source: KUKA AG.

Figure 1: The aim of mass customisation is to produce customised product at a cost similar to mass production. Source: KUKA AG. For a larger image click here.

In order to be able to satisfy this trend towards customised products, companies must integrate intelligent automation solutions into their production. These will enable more versatile production that can be networked throughout the entire process chain. On this basis, the system can automatically be converted to changing product types — without wait times and without production downtime.

The megatrend of resource scarcity — dawn of a new economic philosophy

The shortage of minerals, metals and fossil raw materials is already driving home to us the fact that our current consumer behaviour is at its limits. The shortage of resources is making raw materials more expensive, necessitating long-term changes to production processes and leading to a reappraisal of the values of global societies. From normative regulations such as legislation on plastics and emission limits to new ethical customer preferences — the scarcity of resources is permanently changing the way companies think and act.

Maximising energy and resource efficiency in production

For many manufacturing industries, material costs represent a major cost block. The reduction of material usage and the search for cheaper, alternative raw materials are thus of central economic importance.

Companies that want to prevail in the production of the future will have to integrate flexible technologies that use resources efficiently. This will be enabled by the use of intelligent automation solutions that optimally serve all production processes precisely and efficiently, and thus with a minimised impact on resources.

The megatrend of shifting economic power — the consequences of volatile market fluctuation

The production of the future must adopt a more global outlook — with globally networked production locations and supply chains. The shifting and distribution of economic power over more countries and regions goes hand in hand with new customer requirements and new rules for production.

In order to cater to specific regional customer requirements in an economical and timely manner, global production locations are often indispensable — if for no other reason than to eliminate long transport times and high customs duties. Group standards must be introduced and monitored globally. Moreover, they should be highly adaptable to specific regional, economic, technical and cultural circumstances.

Figure 2: Top 10 countries projected to have the highest GDP in 2050. Source: PWC.

Figure 2: Top 10 countries projected to have the highest GDP in 2050. Source: PWC. For a larger image click here.

Redesigning production processes

The megatrends are overarching indicators of the global challenges facing companies today and in the future. They provide clear indications of the issues that the business sector will have to translate into concrete strategies for the future, and there are three key factors that are already deciding future success.

Key factor 1: People

The key factor ‘people’ will play a central role in tomorrow’s technology-based production because of their flexibility and creativity: as creative elements, as knowledge repositories, as production workers and as consumers. After all, it is people who are creating these new opportunities of flexible production. One thing that will be important for the production environments of the future is that with intelligent production technologies, we can significantly enhance the capabilities of our production employees and they themselves can become even more efficient. Smart technologies support people and open up new ways of working and exploring new applications, thereby enabling more efficient manufacturing with higher quality and improved ergonomics.

Key factor 2: Technology

The key factor ‘technology’ constitutes the basis for sustainable production environments. Groundbreaking, flexible production technologies, such as robotic manufacturing lines, matrix production and mobile platforms, are creating a wide range of new production applications.

On the one hand, increased use of adaptable production machines such as CNC machines, 3D printers or robotic systems can help companies react to new production requirements. On the other hand, it is not until operational technology (OT) is combined with information technology (IT) that the existing boundaries of production systems are radically pushed back, utilising IT-driven developments, such as artificial intelligence, big data and cloud platforms.

Key factor 3: Adaptation

The key factor ‘adaptation’ describes the ability to adjust existing processes, systems and applications quickly and systematically to permanently changing requirements and market developments. This is a factor without which economic success is inconceivable in a continuously changing world.

Open interfaces, ecosystems and high-performance development kits for third-party suppliers are the key to disruptive product innovations. Companies that wish to position themselves in the production environment of the future must work with a flexible, adaptive innovation culture that leaves all paths open to them — from the development of their own innovations to the purchase of new, pioneering technologies. The environment in which future-oriented companies operate is greater than the sum of its parts. This is because the more complex a system is, the more open and varied the perspectives must be.

In order to stay up to date, entrepreneurs should also invest in production facilities with open interfaces and standards as well as correspondingly large developer communities. However, when doing so, the issue of safety and security must be taken into consideration. It is important to address both the safety of the production process and the security of the software, and to integrate corresponding concepts for safe operation of the systems.

The new formula for success

The combination of the three key factors ‘people’, ‘technology’ and ‘adaptation’ forms the basis of future production environments. Together, they provide the formula for success that can empower companies to design sustainable production worlds. Only by using all three factors in a targeted manner is it possible to set up a secure, flexible infrastructure that will be able to meet the requirements of the future in terms of dynamic performance and flexibility.

Top image: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Seventyfour

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