Visions of manufacturing automation 25 years from now

Digital Edition Exclusive: Manufacturing automation 20-25 years into the future will be devoid of a paper trail. Great strides in automation, environmentally cleaner production plants, and energy efficiency in manufacturing will have been implemented. Simulation techniques will have matured from years of experience with numerous reference models and feedback from real-life applications. Lifecycle costing and total cost of ownership will be the real measure of project costs. Robotics, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence will be widely used.


Predicting the future of technology is risky and can be an unforgiving exercise. Just consider those forward-looking forecasts of the 1950s and '60s about flying cars becoming commonplace by around year 2000. Still, it's interesting and fun to contemplate tomorrow on occasion. This forward glimpse is similar to historic reviews of the past taken by Control Engineering during its recent 60th anniversary year.

Manufacturing automation 20-25 years into the future has to be separated into at least two major sectors: heavy industries and so-called light manufacturing of cleaner, serially produced commercial and consumer products.

Heavy industries such as steel production, shipbuilding, mining, and other capital-goods manufacturing will not have largely changed by 2034-39 because of the inherently rough or dirtier processes involved. However, great strides in automation, environmentally cleaner production plants, and energy efficiency in manufacturing will have been implemented. These industries will consist of few but large facilities.

In the world of light manufacturing, product development will be completely under computer control—from the design concept stage to commercial products and through to end-of-life disposal. Manufacturing will be devoid of the paper trail. More and smaller manufacturing facilities will be the norm since many products will not be mass produced. Rather, manufacturing hubs will specialize in customized, short-run products and be able to respond to specific orders or customer demands.

Much greater manufacturing flexibility will prevail, enabled by the latest multi-layer automation control systems, production planning tools, and software. Contactless data collection from sensors throughout the facility will provide essentially real-time process feedback to the factory control system. Almost one-of-a-kind production will be possible, which will play into the trend of no stocked parts and no costly material inventories—with attendant reduction in costs and real estate. Some of these manufacturing threads exist today, but they will be routinely applied in the next 20-25 years.

Readily available process information will also be used for product quality assessment, preventive maintenance of plant equipment, and continuous calculation of energy consumption—besides serving as input to control manufacturing lines. Energy efficiency will be a metric integral to manufacturing, as reflected in factory operations as well as in products manufactured. 

Simulation software, advanced robotics

Computerized product design and development will be integrated with simulation software as never before. Simulation techniques will have matured from years of experience with numerous reference models and feedback from real-life applications.

This sort of "calibration" will advance simulation programs to a point where designers have complete trust in the software's recommendations. User interaction with simulation software will also have been simplified. Of course, practical engineering experience will continue to be an asset when using simulation tools.

Virtual product design will reach reality. The need for formal testing of products will be essentially eliminated—except for special cases involving human safety. Cost and time of bringing products to market should be substantially reduced.

Robot technology will also have made great strides. Two parallel paths are foreseen: multiple robots working together to a much greater extent than today, and robots working alongside people. The first scenario will require more advanced controls and software algorithms to handle the more complex and higher dynamic motions necessary for several robots to safely interact at the same time on a production line. Faster production will be the main benefit.

The second scenario will have people and robots sharing complementary tasks in manufacturing processes. Different, specialized control systems and software will be key to ensure safety as well as efficient operation of robots in the proximity of people. Artificial intelligence methods will be used to a greater extent to assist in this type of work sharing where robots will need to take on some human-like behavior.

Plant systems and equipment will have reached unprecedented levels of energy efficiency by 2034-39, driven by mandatory minimum energy performance standards (MEPS). Electric motors, pumps, fans, compressors, gearboxes, and process heating/cooling systems will be among equipment affected by regulations. Energy requirements of motor-driven systems were recognized early on as being the largest single segment of electric power generated worldwide, particularly in manufacturing industries.

Looking back, looking ahead: Reprinting archival articles throughout Control Engineering’s 60th anniversary year provide perspective on how much can be learned about the future by examining and extrapolating how past trends can influence the future. See m

MEPS initiatives started with electric motors around the year 1997 due to their huge installed base and recognized testing standards. This was led by the U.S. (significant regulation already in place there), with other industrial countries following suit over time. By the early 2020s mandatory MEPS for most types of electric motors will have spread worldwide. However, the substantially more difficult task to expand MEPS to the various motor-connected loads noted above will take more time to implement, but should also be in place in 20-25 years. Moreover, MEPS will apply more widely to equipment manufactured for commercial use as well as to appliances and devices for consumer use.

Variable-speed drives (VSDs) will find greater use in manufacturing and elsewhere, with 50% or more of electric motors entering the market by 2039 running under speed/torque control. Major advances in VSDs are also expected from new power-switching device developments. Silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) will be candidate technologies. These semiconductors will offer superior switching speeds and higher temperature operation compared to today's best available silicon IGBTs (insulated-gate bipolar transistors).

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