Mapping strategies for tomorrow’s smart factory

What will the factory of the future look like and how will it be put into action? There are manufacturing paradigms and new smart initiatives worldwide that demonstrate needs, benefits, concepts and preconditions for tomorrow’s landscape.

By tradition, manufacturing has been thought to be a process that turns raw materials into physical products, and the factory, in managing fragmented communications protocols and automation practices, is the structure where manufacturing happens. Today, drivers such as technology, sustainability, optimization and the need to meet customer demands have once again encouraged the transformation of the manufacturing industry, to become adaptive, fully connected and even cognizant of its own power quality. This transformation is characterized by the globalization of value chains in organizations, with the goal of increasing competitive advantages, creating more value add-ons and reducing costs through comprehensive sourcing.

In support of this notion, one of the most significant trends in manufacturing is the makeover from industrial Ethernet and industrial wireless communications to that of improved information technology (IT) solutions involving the union of conventional automation with cyber-physical systems combining communications, information and communication technology (ICT), data and physical elements and the ability to connect devices to one another. This IT transformation, which shifts the manufacturing process from a patchwork of isolated silos to a nimble, seamless and fully integrated system of systems (SoS) matching end user requirements in the manufacturing process, can be described as factory of the future (FoF).

The ultimate goal of the factory of the future is to interconnect every step of the manufacturing process. Factories are organizing an unprecedented technical integration of systems across domains, hierarchy, geographic boundaries, value chains and life cycle phases. This integration will only be a success if the technology is supported by global consensus-based standards. Internet of Things (IoT) standards in particular will facilitate industrial automation, and many initiatives in the IoT standardization arena are currently underway. To keep up with the rapid pace of advancing technology, manufacturers will also need to invest in both digital technologies and highly skilled technical talent to reap the benefits offered by the fast-paced factories. Worker safety and data security are other important matters needing constantly to be addressed.

Plants and production

At present, the majority of manufacturing plants and production facilities around the world are putting into place systems that will make them adaptive, fully connected, analytical and more efficient. These new manufacturing systems are introducing a new industrial revolution, called factory of the future (FoF). This model marks the beginning of a new phase of manufacturing characterized by complete automation and involving an increased use of technology and field devices in and outside of the manufacturing facility. It represents the convergence of the mechanical age initiated by the industrial revolution and the digital age, in which massive amounts of information can be stored and then retrieved from data banks in the blink of an eye.

Trends in manufacturing are moving towards seamless integration of physical and digital worlds in order to enable fast integration, feedback and control loops throughout distributed manufacturing infrastructures. To this end, various local initiatives exist to address the challenges that arise from factory of the future concepts. Many of these are focusing on common topics such as efficiency improvements and personalization in production. Depending on the societal and industrial environment of the respective regions or countries, other additional key aspects such as sustainability or quality play a role. To achieve the overall objectives involved, all of the initiatives propose to exploit technologies such as IoT, additive manufacturing, and data analytics.

However, even though there is a considerable degree of congruency among the objectives and technological approaches pursued in all of the initiatives, an ongoing fragmentation exists with regard to target groups (e.g. small or large companies, focus on business models or manufacturing technology, etc.) funding policies, and standardization. Thus multiple bodies such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), Japan’s e-Factory, as well as the German Industrie 4.0 platform are each defining a reference architecture model for overall factory of the future infrastructures.

Advanced manufacturing (US) 

In the US, several initiatives such as the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) or the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) are promoting the concept of advanced manufacturing, which is based on the integration of advanced new technologies such as IoT into the manufacturing area to improve produced goods and manufacturing processes. A significant amount of study and work has been done by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), a steering committee reporting to the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Their recommendations describe the basis of the initiatives sponsored by the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) and the various innovation hubs being established around the US [13]. The concepts behind advanced manufacturing are also often referred to as smart manufacturing or smart production, and focus on smart products and objects in the production environment, which support product design, scheduling, dispatching, and process execution throughout factories and production networks in order to increase efficiency and enable individualization of products.

e-Factory (Japan) 

Advanced use of the industrial internet with regard to both manufacturing control and data analytics is being achieved by Japan’s e-Factory concept, with the aim of effecting an optimization of productivity and energy conservation. The e-Factory approach helps to make the factory truly visible, measurable and manageable with the help of emerging technologies. As more data than ever before will be generated by equipment, devices, sensors and other ICT equipment, big data analytics will have the power to dramatically alter the competitive landscape of manufacturing in the future. Combining manufacturing control and big data analytics through the industrial internet will produce huge opportunities in all manufacturing areas.

Moving from current implementation to future creations, the next generation e-Factory is targeting the entire networked manufacturing supply chain, its operational efficiency and its innovation, by considering and integrating information technologies as well as enabling a continuous improvement of physical systems and pushing forward collaboration between humans. The potential significance of the next generation e-Factory approach is indeed broad: enabling technologies include sensing, smart robotics, automation of knowledge work, IoT, cloud services, 3D printing, etc.

Industry 4.0 (Germany) 

The 4th industrial revolution – or ‘Industrie 4.0’, is enabled by a networked economy and powered by smart devices, technologies and processes that are seamlessly connected. The vision is for cyberphysical production systems which provide digital representation, intelligent services and interoperable interfaces in order to support flexible and networked production environments.

Smart embedded devices will begin to work together seamlessly, for example via the IoT, and centralized factory control systems will give way to decentralized intelligence, as machine-to-machine communication hits the shop floor. The Industrie 4.0 vision is not limited to automation of a single production facility. It incorporates integration across core functions, from production, material sourcing, supply chain and warehousing all the way to sale of the final product. This high level of integration and visibility across business processes, connected with new technologies will enable greater operational efficiency, responsive manufacturing, and improved product design.

While smart devices can in many ways optimize manufacturing, they conversely make manufacturing far more complex. The level of complexity this creates is immense, because it not only concerns isolated smart devices, but involves the whole manufacturing environment, including various other smart devices, machines and IT systems, which are interacting across organizational boundaries. Industrie 4.0 and its underlying technologies will not only automate and optimize the existing business processes of companies, it will also open new opportunities and transform the way companies interact with customers, suppliers, employees and governments.

Examples of this are emerging business models based on usage and metering. To push forward Industrie 4.0 applications, there exists a broad community encompassing industrial associations in Germany such as VDMA, Bitkom, and ZVEI, large companies and research organizations. Driven by this community, governmental initiatives such as national or regional studies and research programs have been launched, in addition to the efforts being undertaken by industrial companies.

Intelligent Manufacturing (China) 

The Chinese manufacturing industry is pushing forward its Intelligent Manufacturing initiative, which will drive all manufacturing business execution by merging ICT, automation technology and manufacturing technology. The core of the idea is to gain information from a ubiquitous measurement of sensor data in order to achieve automatic real-time processing as well as intelligent optimization decision-making. Intelligent Manufacturing realizes horizontal integration across an enterprise’s production network, vertical integration through the enterprise’s device, control and management layers, and all product lifecycle integration, from product design through production to sale.


According to this extract of an International Electrotechnical Commission study, the factory of the future will deliver on-demand customized products with superior quality, while still benefiting from economies of scale and offering human-centered jobs, with cyber-physical systems enabling the future of manufacturing.

New manufacturing processes will address the challenges of sustainability, flexibility, innovation, and quality requirements in human-centric manufacturing. Future infrastructures will support access to information everywhere and at all times without the need for any specific installation of parameterization. Production resources will be self-managing and will connect to one another (M2M), while products will know their own production systems. This is where the digital and real worlds will merge.