Efficient, highly flexible manufacturing that works without human intervention. Sounds too good to be true? I am convinced that it can become reality, with the autonomous factory. To be frank, we’ve got a long way to go before we’ll have a truly autonomous factory – but it’ll be worth every step along the way! Allow me to explain why I think autonomous factories will be necessary in the future, where we’re headed, and where we’ve already reached the first milestones in our own factories and in collaboration with our customers.
Have you ever ordered a pair of tennis shoes that you designed yourself, customized to your running style and your color preferences? Or a granola specially blended to your personal taste and dietary needs? These days, we consumers already have many opportunities to be our own product designers. More and more companies are offering the option of customization – and not only for consumer goods. But while customization delivers big benefit to us end users, it presents enormous challenges to industry.
Today, more than ever, manufacturers are called upon to “produce what matters” – that is, to reduce waste by producing what the market actually wants and need.
To remain competitive and keep pace with market demands, companies have to do two things: They have to be able to manufacture custom products at the same price as mass-produced ones, and they have to keep it sustainable. Today, more than ever, manufacturers are called upon to “produce what matters” – that is, to reduce waste by producing what the market actually wants and needs. Manufacturing simply to fill warehouses is an outdated concept – and it’s definitely not sustainable. But to accomplish flexible, resource-saving production, manufacturers need to work in new and innovative ways – which will ultimately contribute to the vision of an autonomous factory.
Driverless transport systems that move products or raw materials from point A to point B and robots that perform manufacturing steps independently, without human intervention, may sound like science fiction, but they’re the solution to all of the above industry challenges in the long term. Production will shift from the planned-out, overarching processes customary today to flexible, modular production. This new approach to manufacturing will use smart transport & handling systems, and the optimal path will be envisaged, simulated, and implemented in real time. It will make it possible to change over production to an entirely new product overnight without wasting valuable time on engineering and commissioning a new production line.
The foundation has been laid – now it’s time to build on it
It’s important to keep one thing in mind: with flexibility comes complexity. The more flexible companies want to be in their production, the more complex their production will become. Not only because of the myriad different systems that interact and communicate with each other in an autonomous factory but also because of the enormous volumes of data that result. To master this complexity, you need the right technologies, which are the very basis of autonomous production. Artificial intelligence, edge and cloud computing, and blockchain – these and other technologies are enabling the autonomous factory in ways that would not have been thinkable five years ago. Even today, they offer companies ways to imbue machines with intelligence – to make them capable of processing and analyzing data and using it to make decisions independently. Planning simulations and flexible manufacturing can be carried out in real time.
The time has come for us to use these key technologies and make tomorrow’s production today’s reality. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it makes sense – or is even possible – to convert entire production plants to autonomous factories overnight. Companies should first begin to deploy individual technologies for autonomous production in small areas of their manufacturing that already require a high degree of flexibility. I think self-driving cars are an excellent example that illustrates what I mean quite well: We won’t be traveling around in highly or fully automated cars from one day to the next. But right now, our cars already possess a certain level of autonomy. Take, for instance, the lane assist and parking assist features. From there, the degree of autonomy can be continually expanded.
Co-creation is the cornerstone of our work
Because we don’t view the autonomous factory as a trend but rather as necessary for the future of manufacturing, we are increasingly taking steps to make it reality in our own plants. The Siemens plant for combination technology in Chemnitz is currently working on using a combination of digital twin and AI-based systems to increase the share of automation in control cabinet production in the years ahead. Listen to the Talking Digital Industries Deep Dive podcast about the way to an autonomous factory in Fürth. And our Autonomous Factory Lab in Nuremberg is a sort of “autonomous factory” playground where we can explore and safely test a broad range of ideas, scenarios, algorithms, and implementations before putting them into practice in a real production facility.
Nobody said that implementing an autonomous factory would be easy or fast.
Collaboration with customers is especially important to us because their feedback and our discussions with them are that enable us to turn futuristic ideas into reality. An excellent example is our co-creation process with Porsche for the production of the new Taycan electric car, in which autonomous guided vehicles take the car bodies from one processing station to the next. Another is our partnership with machinery manufacturer Cloostermans, in which we developed a packaging solution based on AI mechanism that can respond quickly and flexibly to changing package content. Nobody said that implementing an autonomous factory would be easy or fast. But it is a crucial step toward ensuring a company’s – and our own – future viability. We began our journey toward autonomous production about three years ago. And now we can already proudly look back on successes that we have achieved with the help of our customers as co-creation partners – and we are excited to see what lies ahead. The foundations have certainly been laid for the autonomous factory and the future looks bright.