Our week-long technology tour of Germany is taking us to Formula E in Berlin, and on the way there, we have a layover in Stuttgart, where we dropped into Festo Didactic, the industrial education company that specializes in cyber physical systems, and now we can tell you what the factory of the future will look like. Or not, as the case may be. That’s because according to the folks we spoke to, there will not be a factory of the future.
So… if there’s not going to be a factory of the future, how are you going to train your future workforce? This is an important question for clean technology, because in order for cleantech to do its job — like saving the planet, etc. — it has to be affordable and accessible, which translates into high-efficiency, low-cost mass production. If you’re thinking that means the factory worker of the future will kind of have to be an un-factory worker, you’re heading in the right direction.
The Only Thing Constant Is Change
Actually, if there’s not going to be a factory of the future, that’s the good news in terms of bringing affordable cleantech into your living room. The name of the game in future manufacturing is modular, scalable, and flexible, which means that there will not be “a” factory of the future, unless you mean it broadly in the sense that in the future, the factory floor will constantly be in flux, in response to new technology, customer demands, and solutions identified by the workers themselves.
By way of comparison, think of a LEGO kit. You can use the blocks — modules — to recreate the picture on the box, you can use the same modules to do something completely different, and you can make something with fewer modules than the kit contains, or combine one set with any number of others (and yes, we did like The LEGO Movie).
In terms of the factory of the future, modular robotic machines are already a thing. What’s needed is a way to “snap” all those pieces together into one integrated system. Festo Didactic’s answer is a smart network wired into each module, which can be controlled by a laptop or iPad.
That’s a lot more complicated than we just made it sound, but in terms of the available technology, it’s actually pretty simple, because most (if not all) modern factory machines are already computer-driven.
As for the availability of factory jobs, the US has already gone through a long run of job-shedding in the manufacturing sector that had nothing to do with robotics. As the US reindustrializes, the jobs have been returning, but instead of being concentrated in manual labor, there will be a broader range of opportunities, for example in process engineering.
Dr. Daniel Boese, General Manager at Festo Didactic, also made the point that the scalability of the future factory lends itself to a distributed production model. That can create more openings for small, local suppliers as manufacturers seek opportunities to cut their carbon footprint (and boost their bottom line) by tightening up their supply chain.
Training For The Factory Of The Future
If you’re old enough to remember your high school shop class, then you’re also old enough to remember learning on equipment that was already out of date, or soon would be.
To some extent, that’s going to be the case with the factory of the future, as the pace of innovation seems to be accelerating by the minute. However, one thing will be constant, and that will be the need for people to communicate effectively with robots and other machines through computers, otherwise known in fancyspeak as cyber-physical systems.
That basic skill set of the future is spread very thin right now, even in industrialized countries like the US, and the result is a classic technology bottleneck: manufacturers can get their hands on some pretty fancy robots these days, but who’s going to operate them all?
Festo’s answer is to offer manufacturers a “Learning Factory” of real, but scaled-down, machines that create a lifelike cyber physical systems environment, which can be tailored to the client’s size and needs. Employers who go that route will be making a significant investment in labor from the get-go, and we’re thinking that will push the US in a new education direction.
The basic issue underlying Festo’s cyber-physical vision is that the work involves people in a very proactive way. In a more nimble, flexible manufacturing model, people who work with robots need to think critically, solve problems, and communicate with people outside of their team as well as those within. These are life skills that can’t be taught in a three-week crash course, so manufacturers are going to need to hire from a labor pool that has learned them the old-fashioned way, starting in preschool.
The problem in the US is the extent to which standardized test-based education has been pushing aside foundational skills like critical thinking and team building.
It won’t be long before US manufacturers start pushing back, once they realize that the factory of the future is leaving them behind at the starting gate.
That brings us to our favorite topic, Tesla Motors. Tesla has been tooting its horn quite a lot these past few years, the latest example being the company’s introduction of the new Powerwall home battery.
All that noise has drowned out last year’s big buzz from the company, which was all about its ultra-modern Fremont manufacturing facility.
Elon Musk is the face and the force behind the amazing publicity machine of Tesla Motors, so we’re thinking that if he hops on the workforce education bandwagon, interesting things could happen.
Photo Credit: Detail from Festo Didactic Learning Factory by Tina Casey.
*This CleanTechnica technology tour was sponsored by GTAI (Germany Trade and Invest) in partnership with Baden-Württemberg International GmbH in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgart, Karlsruhe), Investitions und Strukturbank Rheinland-Pfalz in Rheinland-Pfalz (Kaiserslautern, Mainz), and Berlin Partner für Wirtschaft und Technologie GmbH in Berlin.