It is no question that Industry 4.0 digital transformation has significantly altered the manufacturing landscape. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and automation enable manufacturers to boost operational efficiency, achieving a significant lift in productivity (up to a 15% to 30% increase) and a significant reduction in downtime (a decrease between 30% and 50%).
These technological innovations have also led to the wider emergence of microfactories.
Microfactories are smaller factories that leverage cutting-edge tools and solutions to gain a competitive advantage while offering new levels of flexibility and scalability that larger, conventional factories struggle to achieve. Using AI, machine learning, big data, and other innovative technologies has made waste elimination, process optimisation, and personalisation much easier.
While traditional factories still have plenty to offer in terms of economies of scale and operational efficiency, the modularity of microfactories is attracting attention as manufacturers attain more efficient output thanks to AI and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
But can these AI-powered microfactories replace traditional ones? Are microfactories more sustainable than conventional ones?
What is a microfactory?
Firstly, a microfactory is small-to-medium in scale and technologically advanced, with high levels of automation and connectivity driving its processes. Compared to traditional factories, microfactories consume less power and human resources due to newer technologies with higher efficiency, hence requiring little to no human input.
The modular nature of microfactories lends itself to high production volumes as each microfactory can be considered a “cell” of a more extensive production line, performing various manufacturing tasks that result in quicker production times when operating in tandem.
Enhanced operations and greater sustainability with microfactories
With the rapid changes in modern factories, manufacturers are heavily investing in new innovative tools and technology solutions to manage changing demands. These investments can quickly add up if the factory needs frequent updates, which impact production time, product costs and more.
For microfactories, these costs will be much lower compared with traditional factory lines as only specific cells or components are changed. This helps to keep costs under control with faster updates and shorter downtimes.
Increased repairability and ease of maintenance
Microfactories are modular and standardised in terms of hardware, software and general infrastructure to maintain the highest levels of efficiency and ease of repairability. Compared to larger modern factories with sophisticated technology and customised hardware components, this results in easier factory maintenance.
Increased customisability and personalisation
With the advent of IIoT, AI and other advanced technologies, customers today have the choice to receive highly personalised products and services. This growing demand for customisability has led to greater manufacturing challenges in creating products that adapt to changing consumer wants. Microfactories can keep up with these demands thanks to their agile and automated systems that facilitate quick changes in production requirements.
Increased sustainability and reduced carbon footprint
Microfactories consume less power and resources than conventional factories thanks to the ease of deployment and operations. Each cell in the production infrastructure can be replicated in bulk and produced separately, resulting in lower overall time spent, energy used, and emissions produced. These cells can also be easily swapped out compared to changing an entire production line, leading to less waste and increased circularity.
Case study: microfactories in the automotive industry
There are several microfactory use cases globally due to their significant benefits. One example is the UK-based vehicle manufacturer Arrival.
Arrival specialises in manufacturing electric vehicles, producing them through decentralised microfactories with highly automated processes. These microfactories utilise advanced robots and software that allow the production line to adapt to changes quickly without human intervention. The microfactory also uses lighter and stronger composite components, reducing material waste and costs.
Arrival’s microfactory cells also use modular hardware to facilitate easier assembly, compatibility and replaceability when necessary. As a result, Arrival can achieve higher levels of customisability to meet customer demands while cutting potential waste.
Considering all these factors, Arrival has maximised its output and flexibility at much lower environmental and financial costs thanks to its microfactory setup.
Digital transformation and the factories of the future
When implemented correctly, digital transformation can deliver significant results. However, the challenge many manufacturers face is not knowing if they are progressing at the right pace for their industry and the lack of visibility on specific areas that require improvement. This eventually prevents them from having a clear view on whether they are on the right track in their Industry 4.0 digital transformation journeys.
Only with the right benchmarking tools and frameworks can manufacturers gain the information and analytics that they would be instrumental in propelling them in their transformation journeys. The Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI) allows manufacturers – regardless of size or industry – to assess their digital maturity levels through comprehensive assessments. SIRI also provides guidance and support through generated transformation roadmaps, thus helping manufacturers reveal a clearer path towards Industry 4.0 adoption and empowering them to reach their operational efficiency goals.