Smart factories

One of the huge opportunities for 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing is the ability to produce in series of one. To me that statement embodies the enormity of the impact of 3D printing on the world of manufacturing. But it also poses challenges and in this post I would like to discuss one of these challenges.

This challenge is how to run a factory when every item flowing through the production process is unique and has their own manufacturing requirements. The production of 10.000 similar items using the same or similar process steps is inherently less complex than producing 10.000 unique products each with their own production steps and requirements. The problem is that planning and tracking so many variations in the production process is too complex for a human — or humans.

In manufacturing or supporting processes like warehousing the focus tend to be on automating process steps to reduce labor costs, create more control, better — consistent — quality and increase capacity. But for on demand manufacturing this is not enough or even a solution. It is about the planning and control of the production process for a product. A factory producing 10.000 or more unique products a day is unique in the world. A new set of problems need to be solved and no readily available solution is available today. Or simply: nobody has done this before.

I envision factories of the future become more self thinking systems and knows their capabilities. Product blueprints enter on one side and finished products end up in the warehouse. The whole operation is run by computer systems and no human is part of the planning or process control.

To be clear humans are still needed. Certain steps are better handled by a human (refill / maintenance of machines or specific process steps like assembly or packing of parts — all depending on the factory setup and supported production steps), but the human is just a resource in the factory. A resource which can be planned and directed by a computer. It is not about fully automating the factory but about the creating a smart factory.

So how does this work? A product production request comes in. Based on the product production requirements a production plan is generated. The production plan contains each step necessary to produce each part and — if applicable — how the product is put together. The production of the product is scheduled based on capacity and necessary process steps. Not only the machine are planned but also human operators where needed. In the end the factory runs itself in the most optimal way based on the incoming production requests.

I like to call this concept the smart factory. I know this term is not unique and if you search on the internet you find many references to smart factories. Mostly related to energy-saving initiatives. But in my mind the smart factory can “think” for itself.

Next to 3D printing as a manufacturing technology, this step is necessary to make on demand manufacturing or manufacturing in series of one a reality. In my mind there is no other way to make it scale.