The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of ‘smart factory’ is a production chain run entirely by robots and computers. Well, with the current trends in smart manufacturing, that imagination is nearly correct. Smart factories use automated, self-optimising machines to achieve autonomous operation.

The concept of smart factories has been dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ or Industry 4.0. Automation in the manufacturing industry is nothing new, it’s only now that machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) technology has advanced far enough to realise the first fully automated factories.

How smart factories work

The technology powering smart manufacturing involves the collection, interpretation and sharing of vast amounts of information in real time. Smart manufacturing relies on an interconnected digital network of intelligent devices communicating via the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to handle routine tasks and relay useful feedback, similar to that of smart cities and comparable smart emerging industries.

Sensors collect data from every manufacturing process to enable efficient supply chain management. Using inventory data, work rate, production quality and schedules, the smart factory’s manufacturing facilities adapt to fluctuations in environmental variables to maintain economic, efficient and sustainable production. The entire system continuously generates valuable data presented in reports for production management purposes and logging.

Smart factories go further than that; the idea is to have several automated systems externally interconnected, sharing information and working together as a unit, even linking together multiple smart factories.

Challenges facing smart factories

Like many other automation applications, there is a concern that smart factories will eventually eliminate manual factory workers. Although studies have shown that advancements in industrial technologies do not eliminate jobs, it is still a grim prospect for the factory worker. In the past, industries have laid off thousands of labourers in favour of machinery. Autonomous systems still need occasional human intervention, support and maintenance. Besides, as autonomous systems take over routine and mundane tasks, workers are still needed to deal with other problems requiring human skills such as management and supervision.

Embracing Industry 4.0 is an expensive undertaking, which is another big problem. The entire concept is complex and requires a unique approach and skill in implementation, which come at a high cost. The hardware needed is not exactly off-the-shelf gear; most of the sensors and supporting infrastructure call for custom builds and special orders.

The benefits of smart factories, which include production efficiency, low energy consumption and high-quality yields, outweigh their shortcomings in the long run. The current technology is sufficient to create fully automated production lines, and the manufacturing industry is catching up to the new trend.