Factories of the future are essential for any nation hoping to stay competitive and meet sustainability goals. Sheffield’s Factory2050 is a vision of the future in the here and now finds David W. Smith.
Peering through the glass walls of Factory 2050 on Sheffield Business Park, visitors will witness a spectacle far removed from the ‘oily rag’ image. The architecture of Factory 2050 will take pride in the city’s industrial heritage, while the high-tech processes visible through the walls will convey confidence in the future.
“We want kids to see the factory as we need to seduce the next generation of engineers. The hope is that they will say ‘blimey, that looks interesting. I can see robots moving around. I’d like to be an engineer’. They’ll see high-tech machines working, but in a modern, pristine environment,” says Keith Ridgway, professor of design and manufacture at the University of Sheffield.
Ridgway is a veteran of industry who moved into academia later in life. He co-authored a recent government report on the Factory of the Future (FoF) and believes passionately that the UK has to lead the way to compete in the globalised marketplace. Everyone else, including Germany, the US and Japan, he says, is developing their own versions of the FoF.
Ridgway is director of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), which is pioneering the development of the FoF. AMRC has already built two prototypes, but the Factory 2050 is the most ambitious. Ridgway says it will become “the most advanced factory in the world” when it opens at the end of 2015.
The decision to make Factory 2050 transparent was inspired by Volkswagen’s decision to build ‘Die Gläserne Manufaktur’ (The Transparent Factory) in the heart of Dresden. Placing a vehicle production site alongside the city’s gleaming office blocks was a statement about the centrality and modernity of the manufacturing process.
“I wanted Factory 2050 to be built on the main road into Sheffield to make a similar statement,” says Ridgway. “That wasn’t possible, but the building will still inspire people and become iconic. The physical environment is open and welcoming, clean and fresh. It has a ‘wow’ factor.”
Factory 2050 will be the UK’s first completely reconfigurable, digital factory. The same machines will be capable of producing components for different industries, carrying out several procedures that would previously have required several machines.
The FoF machines will almost think for themselves, Ridgway says. They’ll possess “adaptive control and self- learning capabilities”. They will learn from mistakes. “If there is a slight vibration, it will automatically adjust its speed,” says Ridgway.
Robots will take over many jobs that currently demand human intervention. Sensors will enhance their vision and sense of touch. The robots will even communicate. But worries that their hyper-intelligence will drive humans onto the dole are unfounded, says Ridgway.
“We will lose manual jobs, loading jobs and basic operational roles, but it will push the level of jobs up and free people up to be more creative. We will have more robot technicians and programmers.”
The consequence, he says, could be more jobs, not fewer.
“A factory making 1,000 components and employing 50 people could drop to 40 after it installs new technology. But as its costs go down, it could be getting orders for 2,000, so would then employ 80 people.”
The advent of 3D printing could be just as significant as developments in robotics, with the potential to produce customised high-value products. For the foreseeable future, however, Professor Ridgway says, 3D printing has limitations.
“It’s alright for non-critical components, but more conventional tools, such as milling machines, lathes and mill-turning machines, are also needed. They are far more reconfigurable and self-adaptive.”
The FoF will be an attractive placeto work, he hopes. No heavy lifting is required so it should appeal to all shapes and sizes more than the factories of old, and soft skills will come to the fore. Older workers will not be disadvantaged and could retrain into their forties and fifties.What will be required is a capacity to multi-skill, creating less hierarchical management structures. The FoF is set to become a centre of learning and creativity, with strong links to universities.
Meanwhile, the digitalisation of processes and the ubiquity of iPads and other screens, will appeal to younger generations, firmly at home in the digital age.
The FoF will be smaller and more intimate, “for 200 to 250 people on average. There will be several factories linked to the wider enterprise through a big, central data centre. It will send out instructions to change a component, set machines up for you and let suppliers know what’s going on.”
Factory 2050 will be the first building on a new Advanced Manufacturing Campus, which could see the University of Sheffield create up to a million square feet of new research facilities at Sheffield Business Park over the next 10 years.
The development is also another step towards the development of the region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District. This will be Europe’s largest research-led advanced manufacturing cluster, centred on the M1 corridor near Sheffield and Rotherham, and already home to the AMRC’s facilities at the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP).
Innovation districts combine research institutions, innovative firms and business incubators with the benefits of urban living. Unlike traditional science parks, they cluster cutting-edge research in areas that are liveable in, walkable and bikeable to, and transit connected.
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