Whichever side of the Atlantic you are on, there’s talk of “Building Back Better”. And after having put out fires onboard the ship for the past few years, manufacturing is in dire need of a redesign. But this does not mean a return to business as usual and building back bigger. The world, ravaged by disease, war, and climate change needs a new model. It’s time to think global but build local. Enter the micro-factory.
But first, let’s look at what made modern manufacturing possible.
The production line
On December 1, 1913, Henry Ford installed the first automobile production line. This reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to one hour and 33 minutes. Nevertheless, manufacturers have made gains since 1913; Toyota and Honda, for example, can now spit out cars at a rate of about one minute. Efficient car companies are masters of the production line; humans are the backbone, and robots are used for repetitive tasks.
On the other hand, Tesla, known for breaking things, turned the assembly line on its head. It devised a highly automated production line designed around robots. The electric vehicle company wanted to find a way of escalating production without having to invest in new machinery. By designing an assembly line around automation, increased productivity involves robots working for longer.
Tinkering with the production line has given Tesla a reputation for being a renegade, but it still has a production line, which means the company remains ‘conventional’. Elon Musk’s vision is based on Henry Ford’s 1913 model despite being manned by robots. It revolves around a large, centralised manufacturing space—5.3 million square feet to be precise—where cars are made and then shipped across the world. The 10,000 employees all come from the surrounding area. As revolutionary and brilliant as Tesla is, it is not building local.
So, in the words of Elon Musk himself, “Find a way or make a way. If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary.”
Rethinking what's possible
British company Arrival heeded Musk’s words. The electric vehicle company’s mission is to build sustainable vehicles with low investment. To achieve its goal, Arrival rethought how cars are made. Tesla still relies on industrial robotic heft to produce cars despite automating the assembly line. Arrival, on the other hand, has done away with the production line. It uses autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to move around the factory floor.
The AMRs are as close to human workers as the human brain, or at least mine, can currently imagine. They use artificial intelligence to behave the same way as a human team would: They can move over the factory floor to gather the parts they need, shifting out of each other’s way in the process. They can join forces and help each other if they need to move a heavy part. And they can respond to changes in the plant, reducing the amount of energy they need to complete a task. All communication goes through the factory’s cloud.
Of course, some industrial robotic arms are used, but Arrival’s AMR workforce is sheer neoteric wizardry. Why? Because the whole operation is flexible and adaptable to different spaces. Since the robots are mobile, manufacturing a product is not dependent on a fixed production line. Scaling up, therefore, does not mean building bigger factories.
Arrival builds vehicles in micro-factories, which are akin to mature pop-up shops. Micro-factories don’t have to be specialised buildings—any industrial space could accommodate them. This means they can follow the demand, and their vehicles can be built near their customer base. The result is a reduced time to market, and the vehicles are also built locally.
The robotic machinery employed in the micro-factories can be used to assemble different designs, and it can also be reprogrammed for design changes. Customers increasingly demand customisation, and flexible micro-factories and reprogrammable ARMs make this easier than in a traditional factory.
The only negative angle is that, with all their automation, micro-factories will not employ as many people as conventional factories. For example, Arrival plans only to hire 200 workers in each micro-factory, while established car manufacturers employ ten times as many. However, micro-factories will be more evenly distributed across geographies, meaning that workers can be employed over a wider area rather than drawn from just one place.
Regionalisation and micro-factories
Regionalisation involves reorganising manufacturing into smaller blocks belonging to more localised economies. It was primarily inspired by the pandemic and is propelled by Industry 4.0. The overarching idea is to manufacture products close to customers due to supply chain woes and ethical concerns.
Micro-factories fit perfectly into this picture. They harness the power of mobile automation in more spread out locations, leading to increased innovation at lower costs but higher efficiencies. You could even argue that they have the ability to democratise manufacturing. After conceptualising a product, designers and entrepreneurs currently have a hurdle to overcome—the enormous amount of funding required to manufacture at scale. However, micro-factories offer a more cost-effective model that will spur innovation by making manufacturing accessible.
Another boon of micro-factories and regionalisation is being closer to customers. While there are apparent savings from not having to transport the final product so far to market, other benefits include localising products for customers in specific markets. Being closer to customers will also help companies achieve their sustainability objectives.
In the past, richer countries benefitted from outsourcing manufacturing to less developed countries. This made manufacturing someone else’s problem. But the world has changed. We want the same products, but we now care about how they are made, where they are made, and we want the local community to benefit. Regionalising micro-factories can be part of the solution as they allow manufacturers, large and small, to use intelligent automation to build products locally.
Manufacturing has made technological leaps over the past 100 years, but the concept of the production line in large factories has remained static. Until now. Covid-19 had a profound effect: it changed the paradigm and emphasised the need to change what business as usual means.
This new landscape represents opportunities for manufacturers, investors, and entrepreneurs in a localised economy—which doesn’t mean autarky and isolation. Far from it. The world is global and thrives from being so. We have shared problems and can share solutions. Recognising the global need for customised products which are then assembled and delivered directly to market via flexible micro-factories is a great start. Think global, build local.