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Dark factories, bright future?

Jacques Mezhrahid
24 Apr 2023

An automatic (or ‘dark’) factory can be defined as ‘a place where raw materials enter, and finished products leave with little or no human intervention’. One of the earliest descriptions of the automatic factory in fiction was Philip K. Dick’s 1955 short story ’Autofac’, a dystopian and darkly comic scenario in which entirely automated factories threaten to use up the planet’s resources, by continuing to produce things that people don’t need.

The term ‘dark factory’ can be thought of as metaphorical, for example, the factory might not actually be completely dark – its machines may require some light, if equipped with optical sensors.

Dark factories are a part of the global digital transformation and move to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which is being driven by increasingly capable robotics and automation, AI and 5G connectivity. In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits, challenges, and how companies can move forward with this concept.

Pros and opportunities

Dark factories offer a number of benefits.

  • First among them is increased efficiency and productivity. Dark factories are favourable on classic efficiency drivers such as production output, for example, offering 24/7 capacity beyond traditional shift hours – and they are unaffected by the human need for breaks, vacations, or sick days. And a secondary benefit is that dark factories do not need to be located near a labor pool – which means they can be set up in other areas, exploiting opportunities like cheaper land prices or more attractive surroundings.
  • This also makes them more sustainable. Dark factories can be designed to be more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional ones; an obvious example of this is that they can do away with lighting and central heating.
  • All of that means decreased operating costs, due to a reduction in non-added value tasks and staff numbers, a benefit which is especially prominent in high labor cost areas.
  • It also improves worker safety. Fewer workers present means reduced risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace, a significant challenge in hazardous environments. Moreover, repetitive and physical tasks can be monitored (and assisted) to avoid safety issues or future physical disablement.  
  • Finally all this can lead to improved quality as well as performance. Highly specialised machines monitored by a new generation of integrated industrial information systems work with the kind of efficiency that a human cannot match. They can also provide relevant recommendations to the operator, to avoid mistakes or support decisions (eg. to recycle the product or anticipate corrective actions).

Cons and challenges

There are, of course, some shortcomings.

  • Whether retrofitting an existing brownfield facility or building a greenfield one from scratch, the CAPEX required to create a dark factory is considerable – new infrastructure is required and existing infrastructure may require modification. As is obvious, there are a number of technological barriers to overcome also, for example – AI, ML, 5G, robotics and system integration. These questions should be addressed with a clear vision of the future industrial platform and/or footprint, in order to avoid any “techno push” (a risky approach in which new products and services are driven by new technology and not validated by existing market needs).
  • Additionally, dark factories will necessitate new training and staffing requirements.It’s clear that new specialist skills will be required in order to design, install, maintain and operate the systems that will run these plants.
  • Suitability, scalability and over-specialization form another issue. Humans are still better at many tasks, and not all processes can be automated (yet). It may be a long time before dark factories are suitable for certain types of manufacturing. For example, it’s more difficult to build generalized (as opposed to specialized) automated systems and processes. This may limit a manufacturer’s ability to quickly respond to changes in production requirements. Here, we require AI sophisticated enough for generalized problem-solving (without human aid). For example, the automation of quality control is a particular challenge.
  • Technological dependence is another issue that must be planned for. Cyber-driven industrial espionage is already a serious problem in conventional factories. The sheer connectivity of dark factories creates security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious actors. This could result in data breaches, production disruptions, or worse. In addition, any non-malicious technical failures could result in major production delays without rapid human intervention.

The new human structure of the Dark Factory

How might humans fit in this new environment?

Lean manufacturing taught us that we could cut out much of middle management and improve the efficiency of operations. A dark factory could cut the bureaucracy further. Broadly speaking, the dark factory means fewer people in total, but more added value per person.

Consider the ’enhanced operator’ – which could be an XR-equipped human who makes periodic visits to the facility. Instead of a person with specialist skills on one part of an assembly line, this enhanced operator would be a generalist, with a very broad understanding of the factory’s E2E processes and systems.

Headcount may reduce, but collaboration will still be key. First – collaboration between teams to understand systems, engineering, impacts on manufacturing, impacts on operations and how to handle complex situations. Second – collaboration between robots and humans, to perform complex tasks requiring both capabilities.  

Darkening the factory: what now?

Implementing a dark factory (either from scratch or by retrofitting an existing facility) will not be easy. And, the pace of transformation is sector dependent. For example, it is easier to completely automate simple and repetitive tasks, ones in which every step in the end-to-end process is understood, down to the movement and the millimeter. But not all kinds of manufacturing are quite so straightforward. As companies progress the concept, here are some steps to consider.

A transformation roadmap and change management plan

Identify the steps you need for your transformation roadmap. Is now the right time? Transitioning to (or constructing) a dark factory requires a significant investment of time, resources, and capital. It’s important to carefully evaluate the potential benefits and risks of this transition before making any decisions.

Conduct a thorough analysis of the existing manufacturing processes to determine which ones can be automated and which cannot. Is it still worth it, in light of this?

If so, you may need to work with a recognized specialist company to determine which technologies will be most effective for your specific manufacturing process. The transition could also be phased – for example, a partially automated factory could run a ’dark shift’ overnight, which could provide a test or proof of concept.

And of course – build cyber security into the plan, not as an ‘afterthought’. The dark factory’s level of connectivity (and potential vulnerabilities that result) requires it.

Consider the human implications

How can we keep humans safe in this new (mostly) non-human environment? What safety measures are required – for example, can you create areas that are safe for people to traverse? And how must people behave in a space built primarily for robots, not humans? 

Anticipate and prepare for workforce transformation: think about recruiting for the skills needed for tomorrow. What will be done about those who may lose their job to a robot – can they be retrained and retained?

Consider future operations: flexibility and scalability

As previously mentioned, people are more flexible than robots and machinery. As such, forward planning must consider how the infrastructure will flex and scale, in order to meet future market needs. Detailed monitoring and analytics can help here, identifying what systems can be optimized or replaced.

Dark factories, bright future?

The fragility of global supply chains has become increasingly apparent in recent years – Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, have demonstrated the need to ‘onshore’ (bring back) manufacturing, so as not to be dependent on foreign sources of vital goods.

But manufacturing was, of course, originally ‘offshored’ because it was cheaper to do the work abroad. Dark factories could be an equalising force – bringing down costs so goods can be produced back at home.

It’s also important to consider that fully automated factories have been tried previously, with varying degrees of success. There are a few cautionary tales; IBM tried its own in the 1980s, but closed it because it wasn’t able to respond to changing market needs. Apple also built such a plant in the 1980s, but closed it in the early 90s – likely because the plant was unable to deal with increasingly smaller components. More recently, Tesla walked back some of the automation at its Fremont CA facility, when machines failed to meet its ambitious manufacturing targets. This shows us the importance of flexibility and forward planning.

That said, successful dark factories do exist today. In perhaps the best example, robotics manufacturer, FANUC (Fuji Automatic NUmerical Control), operates a lights out facility in Japan. Here, complex robots assemble other complex robots, with zero human involvement in the manufacturing process.

As the previous examples demonstrate, success with a dark factory can be difficult – but is possible. Dark factories offer transformative benefits in terms of cost efficiency, sustainability, safety, and supply chain resilience. They also offer a considerable competitive advantage to those who ‘get there first’, who get it right and, returning to Philip K Dick’s Autofac, keep control in human hands.

Meet our expert

Jacques Mezhrahid

VP & CTO Industrial Information System at Capgemini Engineering
Jacques supports clients in IndustryX.0 transformation. Analyzing the impact of new technologies for next wave of such transformation and helping client to answer the business, societal and human challenges are also in his field of interest