In 2014, the European Commission launched the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) for Factories of the Future (FoF), aimed at supporting and accelerating the transition toward digitalization, in the context of a general erosion of European industry.

To understand what the term “Factories of the Future” encompasses, one should forget the traditional vision of a loud and dirty plant, lacking efficiency and competitiveness. The Factory of the Future, or Smart Factory promise is all about connectivity, with the extensive usage of IoT (the Internet of Things) and machine-to-machine communication; an interconnection of systems; high-tech manufacturing processes like 3D printing; and smart equipment, like robotics.

The benefits of adopting the Factories of the Future vision are multiple:

  • A better production organization – for instance, ramping up production during off-peak times; automatically stopping production, if necessary; adapting production volumes to real-time demand. Overall, just being more agile.
  • More efficient collection of production data, allowing for better analysis of inputs and optimization of production flows.
  • An improved use of production resources, including raw materials and energy – offering the ability to adjust usage to actual production needs, and limit waste.

However, the transition toward Factories of the Future raises several questions, and poses some challenges for industry:

  • How does a company finance this technological transition? Which financing sources will be available, and how will the return on investment (ROI) be measured?
  • Which partners/experts can technically support this transition? Who do you trust?
  • How does a company encourage team training, foster attitudinal change, and attract – and retain – top talent?
  • How can data be gathered, safely stored, analyzed and then prepared for use?

Several major European companies have already started to implement these smart solutions. As part of their major digital transformation program called “Connect,” Air Liquide recently opened a business control center near Lyon aimed at controlling production, optimizing energy consumption and allowing for predictive maintenance. A few years ago, the German group, Siemens launched the modernization of its Amberg plant. They streamlined communication between products and machines, adopted the use of lightweight robots and 3D printing, increased productivity and decreased scrap rates.