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Digitization and Automation
 The Flexible Factory
The factory of the future
is becoming a reality—flexible, efficient, and fully automated.
Customization and automated mass production were once two ends of the manufacturing spec- trum. Today, they are being drawn together by the evolving needs of consumers. Imagine a bottling
plant close to Madrid, where machines fill up to 50,000 bot- tles a day. It’s a manufacturing process that has served the beverage industry for decades, delivering high volumes of a standardized product at speed. But in this factory, something else is happening. Integrated within the line are robots that pick out individual bottles and put them on automatic guided vehicles, or AGVs. The bottles are transported to a separate station. Here, a small batch of bottles is filled with a different ingredient from the main batch or receives a special label. Whatever the customization process, it all happens quick- ly, efficiently and automatically, without interruption to the main production line.
To see the latest factories in operation is to understand that a fundamental transformation is underway, not just in the architecture and systems of manufacturing plants, but in the possibilities these new technologies enable. One company at
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the forefront of this development is ABB, the Swiss-based firm that provides the technology behind machine automation and robotics.
Courteous robots take your coat
“The key term is ‘flexibility,’” says Javier Rodriguez, who is vice president of strategy for the Robotics Business Line at ABB. Sitting in the company’s local Robotics site in Baden, Switzer- land, he is surrounded by some of the latest robots showing off their capabilities for visitors—one takes your coat, another checks and sorts medicine bottles, a third easily beats you at a game of buzz wire. They are dexterous, efficient, and discon- certingly anthropomorphic.
A company that started out producing electrical lighting and generators over 130 years ago, ABB is now at the forefront of robotics and the digital transformation of manufacturing worldwide. Where both these trends come together is in the flexible factory, defined by Rodriguez as one that allows the plant owner to change product configuration, batch size, or flow optimization simply and quickly to meet customers’ needs. The development of the flexible factory is driven by two distinct trends. On the one hand is a revolution in demand: today’s end consumer expects individualization along with speedy delivery, quality, and a competitive price. To meet these needs, ABB’s customers, the plant owners, want simpler and smarter au- tomation solutions. However, they also want flexibility in how they invest in their factories. “Demand is changing so fast that manufacturers can no longer predict with certainty. This means
Always ready
Javier Rodriguez, Vice President of Strategy of ABB’s Robotics Business Line, says flexibility must be inherent in every layer of a factory—from individual machines to the enterprise level.

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