We’re entering a whole new world of making things, away from cumbersome, single-use infrastructures to flexible, modular, scalable methods that are completely digitally driven, writes Rod Hunt.

Consider a child playing with Lego. Watch how adaptable he or she is to multiple tasks and how adjustments are made effortlessly on the fly. We’re using that innate human talent as inspiration today in a program that trains robots to build with bricks, and while such a capability seems flippant, imagine the power in a robot that can perform any number of movements and actions and teach itself how to remember and build on them, just like a kid playing with Lego.

As consumers demand further customisation and speed, the factories of tomorrow won’t have single-purpose ‘dumb’ machines that do one repetitive action. They’re going to be as responsive and constantly evolving as we are.

Here are three of the most impactful changes they’ll impose on manufacturing in the coming years.

Generative design

In Marvel’s Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) designs the streamlined Iron Man suit digitally and then tells his artificial intelligence (AI)-equipped helper Jarvis (Paul Bettany) to fabricate it while he goes to a fancy shindig.

It was – perhaps unwittingly – the perfect elevator pitch for the ideal design project. What if we could leave the ‘grunt’ work of design to robot partners and concentrate more on the project’s big picture, relegating the laborious or dangerous work to machines who understand our intent.

Generative design, where AI algorithms take your goals and constraints and give you thousands of options to work with, does just that. It’s a virtual factory full of as many designers as you need; all churning out large amounts of permutations for the project with incredibly fine computational detail, leaving you free to simply analyse and assess the choices.

The world is already full of products that were made better, faster, safer, lighter and stronger than centuries of human engineering expertise could manage. And we’re not talking about nimble little start-ups either – generative design projects have already come from the global-scale manufacturers like Boeing and General Motors.

Local manufacturing

Imagine the incredulous look you’d get if you walked into a Nike factory in China or Thailand and asked for a single pair of custom-made shoes with your name on them. AI-driven robotics will make it possible.

In the production line economy, we make huge numbers of a single thing. When robots learn to make new movements and adapt their behaviour to solve incoming design problems (or put your name on a pair of shoes), it instantly retools the entire factory.

Crucially, it also means a single device can do a lot more, which will open the field up to local makers who don’t have the billion-dollar factory infrastructure of big manufacturers.

As we demand more customised products, a whole new maker class will spring up with small factories that can make a single product, then quickly and cheaply retool to make something else. The savings on shipping alone will reduce costs – both to consumers and the environment.

Connected data and the supply chain

The same AI systems that will drive tomorrow’s smarter, more responsive robots will go much farther down the supply chain to improve the manufacturing process at ground zero.

Take your sales figures, geographic data and even the political mood and weather in your market sectors after mining millions of social media updates, connect it to your manufacturing floor and design studios and you can immediately respond to projected changes, your robot altering its behaviour proactively to respond to upcoming demand. Raw material provision, staffing and product maintenance decisions can be back-channelled right to your factory, which can scale up or down or shift focus in response.

And the swarms of sensors at every point along the supply chain are building a more detailed snapshot of your entire business than ever before. Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices deployed everywhere from your AI-driven manufacturing robots to the retail outlet where your products are sold, and even when the product is in the hands of your consumers, this feedbacks into the next iteration of its design and production.

Like in a lot of emerging fields, there’ll be some short-term pain; jobs will be replaced. But in the long term it’ll merely be a matter of adjustment. We’ll remake our economy in response to technology, reskilling just like blacksmiths or samurai warriors once had to. A decade ago, generative designers and robot trainers did not exist but they will be in high demand in the near future.

Some aspect of manufacturing is also turning small and local, without even displacing the huge, production line manufacturing the 20th century gave us, encouraging a new, customisation-based economy.

Overall, AI-driven robots will enhance human ingenuity, not replace it, just like technology has always done. Even though we might have a robot to chop onions or carrots in the kitchen, there’ll always be a call for an experienced and creative chef who understands how to combine flavours and textures to create delicious food.

Rod Hunt is the Manufacturing Lead, ANZ for Autodesk.