Intelligent Factories of the Future

As more manufacturers begin to integrate smart machines into their production processes, employees throughout the industry seek to understand what it will mean to the factory of the future.

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To understand how new industrial technology will impact employees, a team from Intel's Internet of Things Group conducted a study to find out what workers from the factory floor to the boardroom can expect in the intelligent factory of the future.

Led by Dr. Irene Petrick, industrial innovation director, and Dr. Faith McCreary, principal engineer and researcher, the global study involved interviewing 145 employees working in industrial manufacturing – including petrochemical, metal fabrication, and food and beverage companies with factories, primarily in North America.

"Current manufacturers who are considering new digital implementations need to think not just about the technology piece, but also about their workforce,” said Petrick, an internationally recognized expert in strategic road mapping and innovation.

“It's not just about the numbers of jobs that are changed. It's about the types of jobs, and their needs. It's the co-evolution of technology and people in the factory.”

Upgrading to Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 — a term that refers to the digital transformation of manufacturing, business and society — ushers in the fourth industrial revolution where advances in technology combine the physical, digital and biological worlds, according to the World Economic Forum.

The foundation for this modern industrial revolution is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which enables continuous data exchange — from the production robot to inventory management to the microchip, according to Hannover Messe, the German industrial trade show that coined the term Industry 4.0. Using automated robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, sensors and data analytics, these smart factories connect all production and logistics processes together, making manufacturing more intelligent, efficient, and sustainable.

McCreary and Petrick found that employees both welcome and worry about the intelligent factory of the future.

“There's an incredible appetite for change, and it comes at all levels in the company," said Petrick.

But, she noted, there’s an understanding gap in how to integrate smart technology with existing systems. Some workers even had magical thinking around how these smart technologies actually work, demonstrating a lack of concrete understanding of the underlying technologies that need to come together to create a cohesive solution.

Putting in a new machine or upgrading one in place may not be enough. Many manufacturers still need to explore how to take the critical next step of creating a new communications infrastructure with greater bandwidth to actually collect, connect, and analyze data, Petrick said.

"It's more complex than just, ‘I have this great new machine,’" said Petrick. "It takes a combination of technology upgrades to achieve the true benefit."

Once data is gathered, it needs to be analyzed and used. Ultimately, the study found that industrial employees recognize that data should drive decision-making, and there should be data scientist-like thinking by workers at all levels in the smart factory.

“They're making a very practical decision to say, ‘How can we put data at the heart of our organization,’ as opposed to saying, ‘We’re taking the data out and handing it to data scientists, and somehow then we'll make decisions about our factory,’” said McCreary.

Intelligent Factories Focus on Quality

Companies have a wide range of digital adoptions available. In many of those scenarios, human beings do most of the work. In highly digital companies, however, those same workers are connected to automated processes. The intelligent factory goes beyond that, with IIoT devices and analytics autonomously making decisions and optimizing processing without much human intervention.

A company’s motivation for adding technology depends on its current level of digital intensity, which surprised the researchers. McCreary said companies that are currently at a low level of digitization are motivated by how much time it takes to do a particular task. In semi-automated companies, where both people and machinery work together, it’s about productivity.

However, in high digital-intensity businesses, "when they start to talk about the leap to the intelligent factory, it becomes about quality," McCreary said.

"That actually was a surprise,” Petrick said. “We would have all thought it’s about efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, and that's all it's ever going to be. Our results suggest that there's more nuance there at the upper levels of digital intensity."

Workers at low- to high-digital intensity factories all expressed concerns about skill gaps with the adoption of new technologies, especially at companies with little digitalization, the study found. Employees who embrace technology and coming changes are often motivated by the desire to adapt as a way to stay relevant and employable over the long-term.

Future Intelligent Factories

While smart technology is rapidly evolving, Industry 4.0 technologies are not yet on the radar for many manufacturers. Seventy-eight percent of the manufacturers surveyed use computers in their operations and 32 percent discussed how they deploy robots on the factory floor.

Many employees surveyed wanted more and expressed interest in using some 4.0 technologies to solve today’s problems, which they described mostly as process challenges and improvements to particular tasks, not large-scale manufacturing transformation.

"When taking the journey to the intelligent factory, we must be able to translate the grand vision into changes that workers care about, namely solving the problems they face today," said McCreary.

The worst possible future state? No change from the way things work today. This thought was expressed across the board by study participants. Industrial workers expect and want fundamental shifts in the nature of their work, with many employees expressing hope that technology will take over onerous tasks.

“It's not just the factory that’s transforming. It's the roles in the organization, and the people within it,” said McCreary.

Creating the factory of the future, it turns out, isn’t just about automation using smart machines. It’s about the complete transformation of the workplace.

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