Today is the “official” centennial celebration of the moving assembly line. I wrote an extensive article on this topic in the October issue of ASSEMBLY (see The Moving Assembly Line Turns 100).

If I had access to a time machine, I’d love to travel back to see what was going on at Ford’s Highland Park plant in October 1913. But, I would also want to travel forward 100 years into the future to see what’s in store for manufacturers of tomorrow.

Engineers at Siemens’ corporate research and technology center in Germany recently explored the near-term future in a report entitled “Manufacturing and Innovation.” In one futuristic scenario from 2060, they envision an underground factory in which materials are piped in and finished products are shipped out via pneumatic tubes.

Ceramic, metal and carbon nanoparticles are digitally sprayed to “assemble” a product. The process is similar to today’s 3D printing technology, but thousands of times more precise and individually produced to the customer’s specifications.

To avoid micro deformations and materials contamination, products pass from machine to machine in “a powerful magnetic field that also functions as a continuous inspection system.”

That sounds like something that Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker would definitely endorse.

When I put on my future vision goggles, I imagine that some variations of 3D printing, nanotechnology, lasers, advanced sensors and vision systems, and mass-customization will be common sights in future factories. But, here are a few other predictions that future readers will probably laugh at. Some of my ideas are a bit far-fetched, but others may be closer to reality than you think:

  • In addition to a human resources manager, most factories will have a human-robot interaction manager to police collaborative interactions and settle disputes.
  • Annual changeovers in the auto industry will go the way or running boards, hood ornaments and rumble seats. Instead, there will be quarterly changeovers to match constantly changing consumer tastes and seasonal moods.
  • Traditional electrical wiring harnesses will no longer exist.
  • Work instructions will appear as floating holograms.
  • Automobiles (or whatever personal mobility devices of the future are called) will automatically drive themselves from the assembly line to the consumer’s front door.
  • Dogs equipped with exoskeletons will be trained to work on assembly lines and provide companionship to robots.
  • Assembly lines will exist in outer space (both on the surface of the moon and in orbiting factories).
  • Humans will interact with robots on the plant floor via voice, gesture and optical controls.
  • Inflatable, pop-up assembly lines will be deployed where ever and when ever they are needed.
  • Humanoid robots will patrol factory floors and serve as continuous improvement ambassadors.
  • Aircraft assembly lines will resemble today’s automotive plants, with wide scale use of robotics and other forms of automation.
  • Large cargo ships equipped with onboard factories will assemble products while in route. Other floating factories will travel from port to port in search of low-cost labor.
  • Smart materials and smart tools will be the rule rather than the exception on the plant floor.
  • Mini drones will fly around factories moving materials and monitoring quality.
  • Assembly lines will be extremely flexible. Automotive plants will build sportscars, motorcycles, sedans, minivans, pickup trucks, sport-utility vehicles and flying cars (and some other yet-to-be-invented vehicle segments) on the same assembly lines.
  • Whatever happens in the years ahead, I believe that humans will somehow still be a part of the assembly process. Human assemblers and engineers will still exist in future factories.
  • There will be a move back to hand-crafted products. Some future entrepreneur will find a nice for products “built the old-fashioned way.” And, someone will even build a retro factory equipped with a steam engine attached to overhead line shafts and belts.

But, enough about my pie-in-the-sky ramblings. What do you think the future has in store for assembly?

What will assembly lines and factories look like 100 years from now? Will people still be involved in the production process? What type of future materials-related breakthrough will transform manufacturing in the decades ahead? Will they still make vehicles in Detroit when the bicentennial of the moving assembly line is celebrated in 2113?