By: MIT xPRO on October 25th, 2022
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Ask an MIT Professor: How to Prepare for the Factory of the Future

Technology Insider | Manufacturing | Engineering

When it comes to preparing for the factory of the future, there’s no better time than the present. 

In a recent report on factories of the future, the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future called for investing in “human-centric technology development”— a common goal among manufacturing leaders everywhere. 

We recently spoke with Professor John Hart, lead instructor of MIT xPRO’s additive manufacturing course, about how engineers and leaders in STEM can prepare for what’s next in manufacturing.

What is the factory of the future? How does it differ from factories of the past and present? 

“It’s important to recognize that there is no one vision of the factory of the future,” says Professor Hart. “The design of a factory, including the equipment and processes within that factory, depends on the products that are being manufactured.”

Nevertheless, there are a few defining features that apply generally: 

  • The factory of the future is digitally connected. From the front office to the factory floor, digitization enables organizations to boost efficiency and productivity.
  • The factory of the future includes automation working in synergy with humans. Automation of selected operations can empower workers to replace repetitive manual tasks with higher-level tasks, such as digitally monitoring multiple machines (instead of working at just one) and making important data-driven decisions.
  • The factory of the future enables real-time decision-making. With the proper physical and digital infrastructure in place, workers can make decisions on the fly, whether that means responding quickly to errors or optimizing operations to improve the factory’s performance.

What does it mean for a factory to be “human-centered”?

Contrary to some popular beliefs, most factories that embrace innovation aren’t doing so at the expense of human workers. 

While Professor Hart acknowledges that many automated factories will require fewer people to operate effectively, he is optimistic about the high quality of jobs created by factories of the future. In focusing less on manual tasks, workers have opportunities to cross-train and become involved in higher-level decision-making. 

“These future factory systems have to be designed hand-in-hand with the type of work and the roles of the different individuals who will be needed to operate and maintain the factory,” says Professor Hart. “Organizations must ensure that the folks who operate machines, oversee production, and conduct other critical tasks can effectively interface with newer automation and data systems.” 

What challenges do companies face when adopting new technologies?

“One of the biggest challenges is understanding how to layer new technologies into existing manufacturing operations,” says Professor Hart. He explains that it’s much easier for an organization to start from scratch and introduce a new approach from the ground up. 

Companies with pre-established systems and infrastructures must be equipped to confidently make capital investments in people and equipment and determine not only which processes to automate but how to implement and revise operational practices accordingly. 

What will happen to companies that fail to embrace the factory of the future?

“The ability to provide higher quality products more quickly and consistently will become an increasingly critical differentiator,” says Professor Hart. “It’s very powerful when a manufacturer supplying parts to a customer can offer a new capability, prototype the next design iteration faster, or reduce costs. 

“Advanced technology is key to competition,” he explains, and companies that are behind can see declining financials as they struggle to win new contracts and meet demanding customer requirements. 

Companies that do heed the call will not only outperform competitors but also make themselves more attractive to the next generation of workers, an essential benefit amid a significant  manufacturing labor shortage. “One way to get more young people excited about and interested in manufacturing careers is to introduce them to innovative technologies,” says Professor Hart. 

What roles do engineers and STEM leaders play in preparing for this emerging model?

“For individuals, understanding the technical knowledge and operational experience needed to play a part in the bigger picture is key,” says Professor Hart. “And organizations and their leadership must enable individuals to acquire the necessary skills and experience to use new technologies and think critically about how those technologies can be layered into existing operations.”

Professor Hart adds that it’s important to define achievable metrics pointing to shared success among leaders and individual contributors. And it helps to start small. For example, an organization could begin by leveraging data to better understand a certain manufacturing operation and make small optimizations to improve performance. 

“When a pilot project that involves exploring a new technology is connected to business objectives and demonstrates a benefit to the bottom line, the effort can be very successful in growing the organization’s confidence and building a bigger vision over time,” says Professor Hart.

How can engineers prepare for the factory of the future? 

The MIT xPRO course that Professor Hart teaches, Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production, is an excellent place to start because, as he notes, “3D printing is one of the technologies shaping the future of production.” 

He adds that courses on robotics, systems engineering, machine learning, and data science are also relevant to the future of manufacturing and can provide considerable value. 

How can an engineer make the case to leadership for upskilling or ongoing education? 

Professor Hart suggests that in addition to sharing encouraging testimonials and statistics about course participants, engineers could make the case to their employers that understanding certain technologies, such as additive manufacturing, is essential to preparing for the factory of the future and keeping organizations competitive. 

“Individuals who take a course on additive manufacturing will learn the fundamentals, implications, and applications of this important emerging technology and identify new product and business model opportunities,” says Professor Hart. 

Want to learn more from Professor Hart? Enroll in MIT xPRO’s Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production course.