by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
illustration by Derek Stukuls

The transformation of the factory from a vast machine into a creative, knowledge-intensive space is a development few could have seen. Are you ready for the next industrial revolution?

For many people, the word “factory” conjures up images of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. They imagine landscapes of machinery, consuming men and raw materials, blackening skies and destroying lives. Whatever they produce, factories are inhuman and unnatural. Certainly such factories still exist; but companies that aren’t trying to win the race to the bottom are taking different paths. The outsourcing movement, and more recent attention to product design, have eclipsed a quiet transformation of the factory from a vast machine into a more knowledge-intensive, even creative, space. In surprising ways, the factory is now following a path blazed by the design studio and modern office: it’s becoming more knowledge-intensive and flexible, even as it grows more tightly connected to markets and suppliers.

Almost since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1750s, engineers and managers have sought to make factories more efficient and productive. Industrial engineering and operations research developed in the mid-twentieth century to put factory design on a more scientific foundation. Total Quality Management and Six Sigma brought a new focus to these efforts: they made quality improvements the centerpiece of factory reform, and made quality a key consumer benefit. They also generated vast quantities of information about factory operations, and required large amounts of information to succeed. Likewise, robotics and supply chain management made manufacturing more information-intensive.

Industrial engineers are now looking beyond the production line: Georgia Tech dean William Rouse argues that industrial engineers will design supply chains and entire enterprises, not just factories. Meanwhile, new technologies are moving into the factory floor. Put most simply, they’ll make products more intelligent; make manufacturing more information-intensive; and turn the factory floor into a center for a new kind of knowledge work.

Products will become more intelligent thanks to the emergence of pervasive computing. Ever-smaller and more-powerful processors, sensors, and memory are increasing the power of handheld devices like cell phones. Soon, flexible and printable electronics and displays will let us put electronics on clothes and packaging. At the same time, the growth of wireless networks and IPv6 (a new Internet protocol) will give devices greater opportunities to communicate with users and each other, and to cooperate in ways we can only dimly imagine today. These capabilities will also give manufacturers the chance to learn more about how their products are used. In some cases, networked products will report back to manufacturers throughout their lives; in others, products will keep digital diaries that companies can recover in eco-friendly takeback programs. (At least one printer company is quietly gathering data from recycled printer cartridges, and breaking down used printers to look for consistent failure points, causes of breakage, and overengineered areas.)

Manufacturing, meanwhile, will become more information-intensive thanks to rapid prototyping, which allows engineers to make precise working prototypes from CAD files. Two methods for rapid prototyping (or, alternately, freeform manufacturing or layered manufacturing) have become especially important in the last decade. Both are additive processes, which build up objects one layer at a time, like rows of bricks in a wall; neither requires any tooling, which virtually eliminates the setup times and costs of conventional manufacturing processes. In inkjet manufacturing, an inkjet printer sprays fine beads of plastic or resin instead of ink, eventually building a freestanding structure. In laser sintering, a laser draws the shape of an object in a layer of powder. The laser fuses the powder into a solid; the object is then covered with another layer of powder, and the process is repeated.

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