Digital Factories Will Need New Kinds of Workers

By RP Siegel
Credit: renjith krishnan via

Manufacturing is on the brink of a digital revolution. The world’s top manufacturing executives are already adjusting their strategies to respond to changes in the industry, according to a study by consultancy Oxford Economics .

“Sixty-eight percent of firms are about to undergo a fairly radical business transformation,” said Lou Celi, president of Oxford Economics Americas.

The study cites multiple trends affecting the future of manufacturing including additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing), which it predicts will grow 123 percent in the next three years. Similarly, use of remote diagnostics will jump by 56 percent. In addition, so-called “smart products,” which the study defines as software-intensive, networked products that have sensors and connections back to the original manufacturer, will grow 38 percent in the same period.

The product pipeline as we once knew it is getting shorter and straighter. The last section of the pipe delivered initiatives like Six Sigma and lean. The emphasis now is on getting from the idea phase to the factory. The emergence of 3D printing has certainly done that, skipping entirely over many of the time intensive steps in what used to be the pre-production engineering process.

To find out what this means for the future of both engineering and manufacturing, Tech Trends Journal spoke with Marc Siemering, senior vice president of Deutsche Messe AG, which hosts the Hannover Messe trade fair featuring the Digital Factory, which focuses on integrated processes and IT solutions.

Tech Trends Journal: Is manufacturing as we know it, dead?

Siemering: Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. What we currently see is that the worldwide manufacturing industry is one of the most important drivers of growth and stability -- especially in Central Europe. However, the value creation processes have changed dramatically. Products are more and more connected, software is responsible for innovation, and automation reaches completely new dimensions. This is the only way that energy efficiency, shorter product and production cycles as well as individual mass production can be achieved.

Tech Trends Journal: What are the implications of the digital factory for the evolving relationship between manufacturing and design and the rest of the supply chain?

Siemering: The digital factory has two important aspects. One is better integration of product development and production. The other is constant availability of all relevant data in the entire value chain. Only when all product components and all factory processes can be virtually displayed, can the processes be changed accordingly. Digitalization is therefore a requirement so that all parties -- including the suppliers and partners worldwide -- can cooperate even better with each other.

Tech Trends Journal: Now that the production end of the pipeline has been straightened and shortened with tools like lean and Six Sigma, the emphasis seems to be on things like 3D printing to shorten the journey from concept to factory. What other tools are being deployed to facilitate this movement?

Siemering: New manufacturing techniques and new materials will of course be important tools of the future, in order to design products and production even more effectively. Everyone today is talking about 3D printing and additive manufacturing based on 3D-CAD data, which will certainly play a major role in the coming years. However, it is probably more likely that the use of virtual product models and of virtual-simulation factories will have the biggest impact. If hardware manufacturers can bypass hardware prototypes and go directly to production from a data model; if they can virtually operate production facilities; if they can virtually refurbish and install machines -- during which time the actual machines work on other tasks -- then this will have a much greater impact on profitability than a new production process.

Tech Trends Journal: Do you see this pipeline being mostly or entirely automated in the years ahead?

Siemering: A decade from now, autonomous systems with fewer manual production tasks will be standard, and the products themselves will know to which machine they have to go to for which specific task. Humans will more and more become the creative brain in a highly automated plant. Fewer and fewer steps will have to be completed by hand.

Tech Trends Journal: You talk about the integration of all processes in the industrial value chain. Do you see limitations in an automated approach that will require certain aspects of manual product creation to remain? What are the critical points today that resist automation?

Siemering: The most critical points have to do with security, e.g. intellectual property theft, R&D and patent protection with the help of autonomous systems and product piracy. It is exactly these questions that make it very unlikely that we will soon have fully automated factories. What we need, in fact is, highly qualified employees who can work with highly complex parts and systems.

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