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The factory of the future

Amber Stokes talks to Microsoft and its partners for an insight into the technologies and trends that are shaping the factory of the future

Globalisation has had a huge impact on manufacturing industries today. Multiple plant locations, departments, workforces and customers scattered across the globe, coupled with significant technological developments in the last ten years alone means that manufacturing organisations are having to rethink how they operate.

“Today’s manufacturers work under commonly known best practices. All of them aspire to same goals aiming at the same level of performance. Leaders in the industry therefore strive to find innovative ways to remain competitive. The use of state of the art technology can help raise the bar and implement unforseen best practices,” says Enrique Andaluz, industry solution manager of discrete manufacturing at Microsoft. Where previously manufacturers looked to improve the efficiency of their supply chains, there is now a new focus on collaboration and improved productivity in order to deliver products faster than ever before.

“Manufacturers face challenges that require continual transformation as part of their business models,” says Steve Dunbar, Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Business Group UK lead. “Pricing pressures, variable demand, growing competition and other challenges have made it more difficult to do business.”

“As the manufacturing industry addresses these challenges and tries to deliver rich experiences to customers, it is important that organisations view technology as an enabler,” adds Dunbar. Microsoft foresees greater adoption of intelligent systems. There are a huge number of devices on the factory floor and a large amount of data generated by them. Joining all this up with cloud technology means there is huge potential for intelligent systems. And this is where Microsoft and partner technology comes in. “Microsoft has a vision to enable modern manufacturers to use a combination of connected devices, customisable applications and the cloud to enable machine-to-machine communications, bringing greater agility and effectiveness to their business with intelligent systems,” says Dunbar.

Embracing intelligent systems
The rise in mobile technology in the consumer industry has meant that manufacturers are having to put processes in place in line with their intelligent systems to ensure that the younger generation, which are demanding it now and will dominate the workforce in years to come, can operate in the way they want to but also to their full potential. “Manufacturers need to cope with change faster and more drastically as changes come at a more frequent rate than before,” says Andaluz. “The skill-set of operators has to be different now as they have to understand the new kinds of technology that are starting to enter the industry like cloud, social, mobile and the use of new natural user interfaces (like gesture and voice), that help them accomplish tasks with higher efficiency.”

With mobile and social media technologies on the rise, factories of the future will be very different

Patrick Michel, VP of DELMIA, Dassault Systemes’
“Mobility is changing the face of the operational environment,” says Tim Sowell, system strategy/Invensys fellow. “Notification and online technologies are changing behaviour all the time, while the shift between gesture versus click will be a big change and must happen with the transition of the workforce.”

“With mobile and social media technologies on the rise, factories of the future will be very different,” adds Dassault Systemes’ VP of DELMIA Patrick Michel. “When manufacturers truly grasp these technologies, together with digital manufacturing solutions like DELMIA, we will see them being able to react instantaneously when consumers demand a certain product or variation of a product.”

It is predicted that by 2020, 40 per cent of today’s senior leaders will have reached retirement age and Generation Y will account for 42 per cent of the workforce, claims Invensys’ Sowell. So with a typically ageing workforce, manufacturers need to ensure they implement new technologies that meet the demands of the younger tech-savvy generation that are entering the workforce now, but that can also be used by existing workers.

Windows 8 could meet these challenges. Being the first operating system that is optimised for any device, Windows 8 is shaping how manufacturing organisations will operate and look in years to come. “Providing a familiar look and feel across any device – whether a smartphone, tablet or desktop – Windows 8 can give operators and engineers alike anytime access to operations and data to make mission critical decisions,” says Microsoft’s Andaluz.

While manufacturers should invest in new mobile devices using Windows 8, we should not forget about the other devices used in manufacturing operations. “With Windows Embedded 8, Microsoft is extending the value of Windows 8 to industry devices within intelligent systems, including assembly-line robots, barcode scanners and controllers,” says Microsoft’s Dunbar. “Windows Embedded 8 will help manufacturers create leaner, more efficient processes that allow for secure, real-time data flow between the factory floor and decision maker’s PC – providing new possibilities for new business models, productivity, security and manageability.”

Human interactions
In line with the rise in mobile technologies also comes a demand for interacting with technology a lot more naturally. Windows 8 is doing just that with a natural user interface that’s optimised for touch control, but other gesture-based solutions are starting to enter the industry, providing real benefits to organisations that could transform the factory of the future.

For instance, in a pharmaceuticals organisation, lab engineers that have to work in sterile environments could eradicate the possibility of contamination by using gesture technology.

Global plant floor
“I believe the biggest change in the future will be that factories will be people-centric,” says Microsoft’s Andaluz.

Provided that such people take on board what industry leaders are telling them, factories of the future will combine innovative digital manufacturing technology, and mobile and social technology to drive collaboration between plants and people.

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