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A Sober View of Future Factories

As they anticipate an accelerated adoption of new technologies over the next couple of years, manufacturers envision that factories and plants will be a mixture of the future and the past, reveals the MLC’s new Factories of the Future survey.   By David R. Brousell

Those who are worried that future factories and plants  will become lights-out facilities populated with artificial intelligence-powered super robots performing functions once done by flesh and blood human beings can rest easy – at least for the moment.

According to the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s latest Factories of the Future survey, manufacturers don’t share the dystopian vision of the industry often portrayed in popular culture, by think tank organizations, and even by some industry insiders. Instead, people on the front lines of plants and factories see a heterogeneous future, one that is clearly evolving to the digital state but which will be a mixed bag of people and automation for the foreseeable future.

When asked what they expected the future state of their factories to look like, 74% of the respondents to the MLC survey said they envisioned a hybrid of humans and robots, additive and subtractive processes, and digital and analog processes. Only 5.3% anticipated a future where factories are lights out and fully automated (Chart 8).


1 More Than Half Undertaking
M4.0 Projects & Growth

Q: What is the overall progress level for M4.0 adoption in your company’s factory or plant operations?

2 Production, Quality Processes Most Advanced with M4.0

Q: At what stage of M4.0 adoption are the following functions in your company?


3 Production & Nearly One-Quarter Has Digitized Equipment Maintenance

Q: To what extent is your plant floor equipment maintenance and service digitized today, and what extent do you anticipate it will be in 2 years’ time?

4  A Majority Has Digitized Production/Assembly

Q: To what extent is your production/assembly process
digitized today and what do you anticipate the extent will be IP-enabled in 2 years’ time?

5 Primary Most Have Networked, IP-Enabled Plant Floors

Q: How would you describe the extent to which your plant floor is networked and IP- enabled today, and what do you anticipate the extent will be in 2 years’ time?

This sober view no doubt reflects a realism borne from experience on the road to a digital future. As previous MLC surveys have shown, the digital journey is long, difficult, and often not linear. Rethinking processes in order to digitize them takes time and a lot of hard work. Figuring out what to do with increasing volumes of data from the many facets of operations requires analytical technologies and the people to manage them. And a successful pilot project doesn’t automatically mean applicability to the larger enterprise as issues of scale are confronted.

Despite the obstacles, manufacturers see a digitally-inspired future ahead, and one in which advanced technologies will have a profound impact on how plants and factories are run.

When asked whether they agree or disagree that AI and machine learning technologies will enable factories to become “self-learning facilities” in the future, for example, more than 85% of survey respondents supported the basic idea, with 23.4% of that group saying they “fully agree” with the concept (Chart 9).

Before such erudite facilities emerge, however, much distance has yet to be traveled on the road to Manufacturing 4.0, the MLC’s term for the next era of industrial progress based on digitization.

More than 85% of survey respondents expect their facilities to become “self-learning” in the future.

6  Nearly One-Third Are Linked to Customers, Suppliers

Q: To what extent are your production functions electronically integrated with customers and suppliers today and what do you anticipate will be the extent in 2 years’ time?


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7  Divergent Views on Future Factory Footprints

Q: Looking ahead, which statement most closely describes what your company’s future factory strategy will be?

8  Strong Majority Sees Hybrid Model in Future

Q: What is the expected future state of your factory model?

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9  Self-Learning Factories Foreseen

Q: Thinking about the impact of technologies such as AI and machine learning, to what extent would you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Tomorrow’s factory will evolve to be a self-learning facility.”

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10  Mixed Picture on Extent of Common Operating Platforms

Q: To what extent has your company established a
common operating platform at its factories?

Many in the Project Stage 

According to the new survey, more than half of respondent organizations has undertaken M4.0 projects, with 30% experimenting with a range of small-scale pilot projects and 29% implementing projects on a single-project basis (Chart 1). Although many projects are at an early stage, most advanced at this point in time are projects in production and assembly and in quality operations (Chart 2).

But, as has been indicated in prior surveys, manufacturers’ intentions to digitize their various processes are remarkably strong.

For example, when asked to what extent they have digitized plant floor equipment and maintenance today, more than one-quarter of respondents said they have done so, with only two percent saying they have done so “extensively” and 24% saying “partially”. But expectations soar over the next couple of years, with nearly 39% expecting to have extensively digitized this area (Chart 3).

Similarly, only 11% said that their production and assembly processes are extensively digitized today, but over the next two years, about 46% expect to be at that level of digitization. And only four percent said they have extensively electronically integrated with customers and suppliers today, but this number is expected to rise to 20% in two years’ time (Charts 4,6).

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11  Strong Intentions for Collaborative Robots, AI, and AR

Q: Where does your company stand in regard to the following technologies?

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12  Production is Key Target for AI/Machine Learning

Q: What do you see as the most immediate application for machine learning/AI in your company today?

All of this process digitization work will be converging with another major trend underway in many companies – establishing a common operating platform across factories. The implementation of a common operating platform, though, depends upon a company’s business model and what it makes; therefore, complete standardization may not be practical or desirable. Nevertheless, 37% of survey respondents said they have extensively implemented such a model in all or nearly all of their factories. Another 36% said this work is in a partial state at only some factories (Chart 10).

The Legacy Systems Issue 

As digitization work proceeds, manufacturers are looking at a variety of new and improved technologies to improve operations and to leverage the data produced from increasingly connected enterprises.

Cloud-based computing, manufacturing execution systems, robotic process automation, modeling and simulation tools, and even 3D printing are already in substantial use in many organizations, survey respondents report. And, not surprisingly, advanced analytics and big data platforms, AI and machine learning, augmented reality and virtual reality technologies, and blockchain technologies for secure transactions are slated for more extensive use in the next couple of years (Chart 11). In addition, the use of collaborative robots, at only at about 18% of respondent companies today, is expected to grow substantially in the next two years (Chart 13).

Investments in these technologies will help modernize factories and plants and also address one of the most significant roadblocks to progress in many companies – dealing with legacy equipment and systems. When asked what their most significant roadblocks are to implementing M4.0, the most cited factor, by 46% of respondents, was upgrading legacy equipment.

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13  Strong Uptick Expected for Collaborative Robots

Q: How extensively are you using collaborative robotics now, and what do you anticipate your company’s level of use will be in 2 years?


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14  Legacy Equipment is Major Tech Roadblock to M4.0

Q: What do you feel are your company’s primary roadblocks to implementing your M4.0 strategy?

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15  Broad Range of Benefits Expected from M4.0

Q: What are the most important benefits and opportunities your company hopes to realize from embracing M4.0?

Close on this factor’s heals was a lack of skilled employees, at nearly 45%, and access to adequate funding for upgrade investments. But there are a number of other challenges as well, including having an organizational structure or corporate culture in place that resists change, the lack of a M4.0 roadmap, and difficulty in scaling M4.0 projects beyond the pilot stage (Chart 14).

Nevertheless, survey respondents appear to be keeping their collective eyes on the prize. Chief among expected benefits from M4.0 this year are better operational efficiency, better decision making through the use of data and analytics, cost reduction, and greater speed and agility.

As they strive for these advantages, a years’ long debate about the ultimate impact of M4.0 appears to be continuing. Is M4.0 truly a game change for the industry or is it just significant but not transformative? Will smart adoption by companies result in creating a unique competitive advantage for themselves or it is just table stakes in the fast-moving, unpredictable world of rapidly accelerating technology? Today, opinions are decidedly split (Charts 16,17).

The answer, if there is one that can be generally accepted and applied, will take time to come into view and may very well depend on knowledge with M4.0 that can only be gained with experience. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is indeed far from over.  M

Modernizing legacy systems is the most often cited obstacle to M4.0 progress.

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16  Split Continues Over Competitive Advantage or Table Stakes from M4.0

Q: Do you believe that the adoption of M4.W creates a unique competitive advantage for your company or is it merely table stakes to remain in the game?

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17 Half See a New Era Resulting from M4.0

Q: Ultimately, how significant an impact will M4.0 have on the manufacturing industry?

Survey development was led by David R. Brousell is the co-founder of the Manufacturing Leadership Council, with input from the MLC editorial team and the MLC’s Board of Governors.

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