What is a digital factory?

Modern solutions – based on a combination of robotics, automation, and other state-of-the-art technologies – are leading to a redesign of new business models in industry, as well as radical changes in patterns and workflow. Digital factories are an integral part of this innovative process. These are production plants in which machines, connected via the Internet of Things, learn from large data sets, employing augmented reality to manage production via 3D printout. Clarification of several technical terms will clearly explain the whole process. Big data processing refers to extremely large data sets being accessed, analysed computationally, interpreted and shared, which in turn allows us to start a fundamental transformation: products become services. Data is processed in the cloud, which creates the possibility of data relocation, and its access regardless of location, as well as a number of services previously unavailable from permanent workstations. Communication is no longer limited to one production plant, but can be shared between different factories in different parts of the globe.

Vertical and horizontal integration

So-called Big Data management and its dissemination brings a growing communication potential. It allows companies to start both vertical integration, i.e. between different phases of the same production chain, as well as horizontal integration, i.e. between different production chains: the value chain is redefined by cooperating production networks. In robotics, automation is still crucial, ensuring that the operator will work with the machine in perfect symbiosis. It is a concept of a human in a loop, where robots programmed by man are constantly connected to the system.

What technologies in a modern factory?

The aforementioned augmented reality in developed factories works, for example, in the context of visual management. Additive production or 3D printing is equally beneficial. This innovative technology allows for very low costs for creating prototypes and conducting simulations and research with very low economic impact. In this, as with other processes, it is worth supporting an earlier simulation. The virtual phase avoids errors because everything is restored to the virtual model with appropriate software. The ability to create a virtual twin requires many choices about the real product.

The Internet of Things is an extremely important surface in itself. This is an environment in which communication is not only Human-to-Machine and vice versa, but also Machine-to-Machine. It means that individual devices will participate in the communication process, but also in the production process. However, we must remember that technology will not be valuable without human competence, and the future depends on us. It is not enough to allow some robots to replace operators and technicians to say that they have made a revolution.

We are building another industrial revolution

About 120 years ago, American factories began to electrify their production lines, contributing to the end of the Second Industrial Revolution. However, production did not increase in these factories for the next 30 years. This time was long enough for managers to “send” this innovation for retirement. These people replaced steam engines with electric motors, but did not reorganize factories to use electricity. New skills are required to operate such powerful tools.

With this in mind, companies should undergo a transformation process based on the principle of cognitive automation, namely the transition from a factory automation model, in which robots replace people, to a model in which more contextual, precise information circulates. Knowledge and the proper interpretation of data combined with competences can lead to the right investment choices with unusual returns for the company. Thus, pure technology is only a tool that we decide to use in the process of analysis and knowledge, based on structured methodologies, such as world-class production.

We can surf the technological wave as the future becomes part of our daily work. However, we must put in some effort beforehand, especially in the organization of – and approach to – people.