Planning The Factory of the Future

Nov. 7, 2008
Globalization and automation trends are challenging management to rethink not only their production processes, but even how and where manufacturing facilities will be located.

The factory of the future -- What should this ideal facility be? What forces are shaping the emerging concepts? And is the pace of new technology outstripping manufacturing management's ability to creatively apply the latest developments to tomorrow's business strategies?

At the highest level, three essential trends are the driving forces behind tomorrow's factories, says Georgia Tech's Leon McGinnis, associate director of the university's Manufacturing Research Center:

1. Globalization of the supply chain. "This is vastly increasing the number of 'non-transparent' interfaces and presents the challenge of integration between functions that are dispersed across many corporate entities," McGinnis says.

He points to the production and assembly process for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner as a typical example. "Sub-assemblies are produced across the globe which then come together in Boeing's U.S. facilities. Today's rule: To sell around the world, produce around the world," says McGinnis.

In the factories of the future, he expects design and business processes to be similarly affected. "This new rationalization of the supply chain is one in which companies that were identified as suppliers are now expected to act as partners. As a result they take on significant responsibility of the design effort as well."

The inescapable result, he continues, is that "the number of interfaces among different organizations is expanding rapidly and have become a cause for concern in many companies." As examples he cites the assembly problems that have plagued Airbus and Boeing." McGinnis says the problems were the result of not being fully prepared to manage and control the interfaces. "Previously, the interfaces involved someone sitting across the hall. Now the interface involves someone sitting across the ocean, often speaking another language and using a different computer system. All of the implicit interfaces now have to be explicit."

"The future's challenging goal is to seek factories that are more flexible, adaptable and committed to shorter product lifecycles," says Leon McGinnis, associate director of Georgia Tech's Manufacturing Research Center.2. Technology that simultaneously de-materializes the product while vastly increasing complexity. As examples McGinnis cites how electrical actuation is replacing the bulky physical presence of cumbersome hydraulics in automobile power steering and aircraft landing gear.

McGinnis says the challenge is to package the complexity so that it is manageable, in production and in use and field support. The net effect of such changes is to require less material and less energy while posing complexity as a design challenge, adds McGinnis. He also sees the complexity challenge growing in the production process.

3. Demographics and the impact on demand patterns. In the factories of the future McGinnis predicts shorter product lifecycles, more "nameplates" per unit sold and faster transitions between products.

"The challenge is for the future factory to be both adaptable over many different product lifecycles and flexible with regard to the number of different products being produced in the same time frame," he says. "The market wants more variety and more choices, and that requires more different products. In the factories of the future achieving economies of scale will require a revised product design approach. The winners will be those who confirm what really differentiates their products."

One principal impact, according to McGinnis, is that "we will be forced to apply to factory design/development the same kinds of systems engineering that are more typically applied to product design/development." He emphasizes that he is not indicting manufacturing equipment, but rather how that production equipment is utilized.

"For example, how do you rationalize the manufacturing technology when you want to spread it over the globe? A lot of variations are possible." He contends that "factory design efforts have typically fallen short of product design efforts," adding that there is not a whole lot of innovation in manufacturing systems.

"The future's challenging goal is to seek factories that are more flexible, adaptable and committed to shorter product lifecycles," McGinnis notes. He names Honda's Marysville, Ohio, operations as an example of achievement with those elusive goals.

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