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Power the Future Report: Emerging Technologies and Future Factories

2015 February 04, 09:00 CEST

AUTHOR: Professor Peter J Dobson OBE, The Queen’s College, Oxford and Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick.

There have been dramatic changes in the world of manufacturing over the last two decades, with the days and years of noisy, dirty factories that relied on out-of-date tools and working practices being consigned to the history books. Even in cases of large scale engineering manufacturing, the work-place is noticeably cleaner and better organised. These changes have largely been driven by improvements in efficiency, higher quality goods and cost reducing methods.

The question to ask now is: How will emerging technologies and advances in traditional technology alter the future shape and organisation of the factory?  With the widespread use of information and communications technology (ICT), which is creating a diverse blend of technologies and applications, attitudes to manufacturing are already shifting, including the way that the future workforce is developed and trained.

New and Emerging technologies:

The ubiquitous rise in importance and sophistication of ICT cannot go unnoticed. Processes can be monitored and controlled. Stock at both the input and output of a manufacturing process can now be tracked and the data can be used to maximise efficiency.  The machines used in factories can have their condition continuously monitored and this can, and will, have big implications for reducing the cost of maintenance and down-time. This should also reduce the possibility of human error (Dhillon 2014).

The design process itself has changed and there has been a large reduction in the number of design staff and variation in the corresponding infrastructure. This could lead to increased home-working and specialised design teams, or companies, that serve several manufacturing units. References to ‘design’ will enter the vocabulary of engineers more frequently. It will become part of more branches of engineering, which will no doubt have fairly profound effects on education at all levels.

Of the newly emerging technologies, biotechnology has been enhanced by new developments in systems and synthetic biology, followed by nanotechnology and its applications to materials, medicine, energy and other sectors. It is possible now to predict the need for a new type of factory that could possibly create and manipulate human cells.

Biotechnology has in many respects already started to have a place on the factory landscape, but it has wide variability in size and scope. While there are already large scale operations that turn biocrops into non-food products and energy, there are also small scale yet very high technology factories that create pure enzymes, proteins and biomolecules for medicine and other purposes. These activities will grow, despite public concerns about genetic modification. A common factor across these activities is the increasing importance of interdisciplinary activity and the increasing need for chemical and process engineers.

One very likely new development is the development of ‘stem cell factories’ and later, possible ‘replacement organ factories’. However, the business model for these and the way they will be organised and built is yet to be decided. The biotechnology world is very prone to contamination by unwanted microbial, viral and fungal species. Therefore good housekeeping and cleanliness is of paramount importance and most biotechnology factories are and will be characterised by very clean sterile operating conditions, along with careful containment of waste streams.

In common with many other chemical processes, such factories will endeavour to make every use of ‘waste’, including thermal and carbon dioxide for feeding into other processes in the factory. This zero waste, maximum thermal efficiency attitude is becoming embedded in the psyche of process engineers. A good example that is emerging is the use of energy harvesting from waste heat, fluid flow or vibration to provide electrical power for sensors that are now more integrated into the factory plant, often eliminating the need for a lot of cabling but making use of wireless telemetry.  

Nanotechnology has the potential to provide significant improvements and changes to materials via an incremental approach as well as to provide truly transformative action in areas such as low energy lighting, new energy storage and energy conversion, and nanomedical developments. There will be a need for a significant scale-up to occur so that nanoparticles and other nanostructures can be mass-produced under tightly controlled conditions and then incorporated into materials and products. This ‘journey’ is only just starting. We are already aware of the potential hazards of nanoparticles that might be inadvertently released into the environment or workplace, so their use will be strictly controlled and this in itself is going to lead to beneficial new ways to control waste streams emanating from future factories. Furthermore, we have to deal with the economics of introducing new nanocomposite materials even if we are aiming at incremental improvements. In most industries ‘cost is king’ is the main paradigm and the market will determine if a small benefit in performance can justify an increase in manufacturing cost. There will be a much more detailed Life Cycle Analysis of manufacturing in the future. This is becoming apparent already in the field of composites, because for such materials it is difficult to recover the original raw materials for recycling. As resources become scarce, this might even lead to new concepts of recycling factories.

Sectors where new factory concepts will be needed:

The pharmaceutical sector is likely to undergo radical changes soon. Many of the traditional methods of preparing new drugs will be retained but in order to ensure quality and keep costs down, the processes will become more automated and incorporate more instrumentation. The introduction of nanotechnology to synthesise new methods of drug delivery and diagnosis will, in particular, lead to major changes in the manufacture of products. This could be step-wise, with initially an ‘extension of life’ of existing formulations, by delivering the drug via nanoparticles or nanocapsules. This could be especially true of inhaled drugs. All such nanoparticles will also have a fairly sophisticated ‘target recognition’ surface layer to ensure they reach the right target in the body. Making the factory process do this reproducibly and in a way that will satisfy regulators is going to be challenging.

The Energy sector is going to require new manufacturing methods. Nanoparticles and many biotechnology aspects are going to become central to new methods of storing and generating energy. Most of the new battery advances rely heavily on the development of new materials to store and release charged ions. This requires the integration of new carbon-based materials that can be designed to have huge internal surfaces into such batteries. The drivers for this are not restricted to the hybrid and electric vehicle industry, but spread across energy storage generally, especially for the intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar. Nanoparticles for catalysis will also be required in increasingly sophisticated form. There is great potential for making catalysts and reactors to help convert ‘spare electrical capacity’ into gas, either hydrogen by electrolysis or photoelectrolysis of water and possibly to produce methane from carbon dioxide and water. Catalysts and new specialised reactors will also be needed for gas to liquid conversion, because, like it or not, hydrocarbon fuels are a very effective way of carrying energy.

The transport and automobile industry will be placing challenging requirements on new materials to reduce weight and yet maintain strength and integrity. Already there are changes to vehicles in switching from steel to aluminium for lightweighting and this general change may continue. The role of composites to replace steel is especially challenging because of the issue of recycling referred to earlier. The recovery of energy from what is currently waste heat in both the auto and building sectors will lead to new types of heat pumps and other energy convertors.


It is clear that there is a real and urgent need for training people for the factories of the future. There have been a number of European initiatives such as ‘Manufuture’ and the contrasting situation with the US and Japan has been nicely summarised by Mavrikios et al (2013). Global trends in this area were collated and analysed in a paper by Secundo et al (2013). This identified in particular the societal needs of preserving scarce resources, taking account of climate change and reducing poverty. They also identify the Manufuture programme and the IMS2020 programme being conducted by Europe, Japan, Korea, the USA and Switzerland which addresses all of these issues as well as addressing standardisation, innovation and the all-important aspect of competence development and education.

The UK, for example. is putting in place training at several levels. It is increasing its capacity for early stage training in skills via apprenticeships and there are new special University Technology Colleges being set up to augment some of the Colleges of Further Education. At a higher, graduate level, there are several specialised Centres for Doctoral Training. The gap at present in the UK and elsewhere is probably at the post-experience stage and the provision of courses for Continuing Professional Development. Frankly, this does need to be addressed.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has recently introduced a focussed initiative to improve training and knowledge transfer in the manufacturing area and it has created 16 new Centres for Innovative Manufacturing. This provision for research and development at the early stages of Technology Readiness Levels 1-3 adds to the new InnovateUK Catapult initiatives which cover the higher TRL levels. Currently, there are seven of these based around the country with an investment of £140M over a six year period.

One further aspect that has not been covered so far is the issue of keeping our factories of the future operational. Over the years some form of condition monitoring or preventative maintenance has been adopted, especially in the aerospace and automotive industry. As manufacturing processes become more diverse and automated there will be a need to obviate plant failure and especially human error. The issues are well described in a recent paper by Dhillon (2014).

What are the regional and national policies that are emerging to help develop the Factories of the Future?

There is a broad consensus on the answer to this and there seems to be a common purpose developing.

The European Commission has issued a document commissioned by the European Factories of the Future research Association:  ‘Factories of the Future’ which sets out a detailed roadmap for its Horizon 2020 programme. This document takes a broad look covering technical, societal and organisational aspects.

The UK Government has issued a document commissioned as part of its Foresight Future of Manufacturing project: The Factory of the Future (Ridgeway et al (2013). This document recommends:

  • More integration of supply chains
  • Closer working between industry and UK universities
  • Focus on both organisational and technical innovation
  • A ‘systems integration’ view
  • Design of reconfigurable factories and operations
  • Favourable regulatory framework for new factories, especially in the life sciences
  • A UK vision that promotes innovation and encourages networks of talent
  • Recognition that there has to be a change of culture.

There is strong evidence that regional policies for creating Factories of the Future is beginning to gain momentum. For example the concept of a modular “plug and play” approach is being applied in chemical manufacturing at the Bayer Technology Services site in Germany supported by EU funding. The large BASF chemical manufacturing site at Ludwigshafen already provides an example of fully integrated manufacturing where there is a minimum of waste materials or energy

Clearly the mission to create these future factories is now in place and we face exciting and challenging times to implement them.

Mavrikios D,  Papakostas N,  Mourtzis, D, and Chryssolouris G. (2013). On industrial learning and training for the factories of the future: a conceptual, cognitive and technology framework. J.Intell. Manuf. 24, 473.

Dhillon BS. (2014). Human error in maintenance: An investigative study for factories of the future. Materials Science and Engineering. 65, 012031.

Ridgway K, Clegg CW, Williams DJ. (2013). The Factory of the Future. ISBN-13:987-0-9927172-0-9

Secundo G, Passiante G, Romano A and Moliterni P (2013) Developing the next generation of engineers for intelligent and sustainable manufacturing: A case study.  International Journal of Engineering Education 29, 248.


Peter Dobson bio

Peter is a leading expert in manufacturing, advanced materials and nanotechnology. He is currently a Principal Fellow at Warwick University’s Warwick Manufacturing Group, sitting on several EPSRC panels and committees and consulting widely for industry. From 2002 to 2013, he directed the Begbroke Science Park at Oxford University and he has set up a number of spin-off companies. Peter was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services to science and engineering in 2013 and in the same year retired from Oxford University, where he was the Strategic Advisor on Nanotechnology to the Research Councils in the UK (2009-2013).

P J Dobson, BSc, MA (Oxon), PhD, C Phys, F Inst P, Member of the ACS, FRCS.

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