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July 26, 2016

What Will Manufacturing Look Like in 2021? Part One: Opportunities

Is it just me, or does it almost feel like the future is upon us, what with all the technological breakthroughs we're witnessing – from advanced robotics to 3D printing with an unlikely variety of raw materials? But what will manufacturing actually look like five years down the road, in good ol' 2021?

manufacturing-future-factory-taylor-jamesImage by Taylor James

Below we'll discuss a handful of technologies that are likely to impact factories of the future. As much as we wish we were legitimate fortune tellers, this is simply speculation – so take our predictions with a grain of salt. And stay open-minded. The future may have more to offer than we can imagine.

Automated Everything

The industry has come a long way when it comes to automation and the creation of repeatable processes, but we have yet to reach the caliber of automation that is waiting around the corner. Data published by the International Federation of Robotics reveals that nearly 1.3 million industrial robots will work in factories worldwide by 2018.

Collaborative Robots

While robots aren't exactly newcomers to the scene, the way they are being utilized in factories is changing drastically. With the help of safety mechanisms and highly adaptive programming software, robots are now working alongside humans on the shop floor.

Known as collaborative robots, or cobots, these machines are trained to operate alongside, and assist, workers. Assigning repetitive jobs to robots increases speed and consistency while reducing risks of human error, ultimately boosting productivity. This allows factory workers to take on more involved or creative tasks.

  Suggested reading: Yes, the robots will steal our jobs. And that's fine.  

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence – or AI is playing a leading role in elevating robots to a new level by means of human-like cognitive programmability and environmental awareness. Thanks to AI, robots are now able to "learn" as a human worker would and can not only "see" human behavior, but can analyze and adapt to it.

  Read more: Robots and Artificial Intelligence  

The result is increased efficiency and productivity, as robots can handle the mundane, repetitive tasks and free workers up to handle more tedious or sophisticated challenges. Expect to see more and more factories that look like this Tesla factory by 2021:


Connected Everything, Too

The Internet of Things (IoT) will lose its buzzword status and become a seamless part of everyday life. What will drive this shift? The answer is two-pronged: the continually decreasing cost of smart sensors, in conjunction with advancements in software development, will fuel the impact of IoT.

The current state of IoT is that it is rather consumer-focused moreso a machine-to-human relationship than a true representation of machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity. A lack of infrastructure for devices to easily connect to one another could be to blame (we'll address this point in more detail in part two of this piece, so stay tuned).

Not only does this mass connectivity apply to commodities and machines – it will also be vital for the data these devices produce, record and communicate with each other. Heard of big data? The tricky part is not capturing large data sets, but having the systems built to properly exchange, store and analyze this information.

  Suggested reading: Ten Ways Big Data Is Revolutionizing Mfg  

Industry 4.0

A 2014 Forbes article discussing the "Internet of Everything" outlined five principles of Industry 4.0, or the fourth Industrial Revolution. These principles highlight the importance of technology and its impact on manufacturing. They are as follows:

  • Smart devices at every stage of manufacturing provide raw data, analysis, and closed-loop feedback that are utilized to automate and manage process control systems.
  • These devices are connected, embedded, and widely used.
  • As an offshoot of the proliferation of smart devices, control systems will become far more complex and widely distributed.
  • Wireless technologies will tie these distributed control modules together to allow for dynamic reconfiguring of control system components.
  • Actionable Intelligence will become increasingly important because it will be impossible to anticipate and account for all of the environmental changes to which control systems will need to respond.

  Related: 3 IoT Challenges That Cannot Be Ignored  


Additive Manufacturing on Steroids

Some manufacturers might see additive processes (like 3D printing) as a threat since they enable consumers to print goods on-demand at home. Instead of feeling threatened, manufacturers should think of additive manufacturing processes the same way we spoke of robotics it will simply change the current landscape.

While in-home 3D printing is excellent for simple parts and decor, when it comes to highly complex product design, seasoned manufacturers will continue to play a major part. It's possible that the manufacturer could take on more of a designer/developer role, ultimately selling designs for others to make at home or in their own facilities.

The Motley Fool reports that the 3D printing industry is expected to grow by more than 31% per year between 2014 and 2020 to eventually generate over $21 billion in worldwide revenue, according to Wohlers Report 2015.

3d-printing-industry-growth_large.pngGraph via The Motley Fool

Greater Flexibility + Rapid Response 

We, as consumers, already expect products in the blink of an eye (take Amazon's same-day delivery service, for instance), and this expectation will only grow. As affordable 3D printing options continue to hit the market, consumers will become even more jaded. With this consumer demand comes the need for manufacturers to become more flexible and efficient than ever before.

Shifting capabilities from large-batch production to small, customized lots will be crucial to stay competitive. One of the cornerstones of 3D printing, for example, is this ability to produce a lot size of one piece using nothing but a digital file  no need for expensive tooling – ultimately cutting production costs.

What does all of this mean for manufacturers in 2021? Those who fail to focus on flexibility, adaptability, scalability and sophisticated systems will be left in the dust. 

New Advanced Materials 

We must face a harsh truth: natural resources are scarce, and shortages will worsen. In response to this new normal, science and technology are stepping up to the plate with the development of new, revolutionary materials. Coatings, metals and foams that are eco-friendly, stronger, more flexible and reactive to the elements? Yes, please!

One example is perovskite, an alternative solar cell material. According to The Indian Express, the material could be used to make less costly, more efficient solar panels and could prove to be a promising alternative to popular silicon-based solar cells.

If you're a Harry Potter fan, you've undoubtedly coveted the wizard's infamous invisibility cloak, which allows Harry and his comrades to roam the halls of Hogwarts undetected. You'll be happy to hear that a team of London-based researchers have developed a new material that can make objects "disappear," according to the University Herald. The nano composite material is able to block radio waves and make a curved surface appear flat. We could all be sporting invisibility cloaks in the future!


The future is bright but is yet to be fully realized. Is it all sunshine and rainbows, though? Probably not. Stay tuned for part two of this piece, as we discuss some obstacles to achieving the factory of the future and how they can be overcome. What do you think the future holds? Share your comments below! 

Related Reads:
7 TED Talks Engineers and Manufacturers Should Listen To
The Future of Virtual Reality in Mfg
7 Misconceptions About the Future of Robotics in Mfg
3 Medical Device Industry Challenges to Overcome in 2016


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Filed Under: Manufacturing