New Industrial Systems: Chatty Factories

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Computer Science


The first industrial revolution saw a transformation based on water and steam power. The second harnessed electricity to support mass production. The third used electronics and IT to innovate and automate. Now, the World Economic Forum defines the fourth industrial revolution as "a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres". This builds on the rapid growth of the third revolution to bring data, artificial intelligence and robotic fabrication systems to the forefront of the manufacturing industry.

Current manufacturing systems are characterised by a multitude of interconnected procedures that include many discrete, highly specialised and human intensive activities, such as: consumer research, concept design, engineering design & prototyping, and manufacturing operations that combine robots with human workers on the factory floor. Two significant limitations of current manufacturing systems are (a) the inability to quickly and continuously refine product design in response to real-time consumer insights (i.e. how the product is being used and its 'experience' of the world) and (b) the inability to quickly reconfigure and reskill the human and robotic production elements on the factory floor in response to real-time data captured from embedded product sensors. For example - if sensor data suggests a product needs a design change based on its current use, how do we update the fabrication instructions and reshuffle the factory floor between shifts, and tell human and robot workers how to alter their duties within minutes?

Our vision for the manufacturing factory of the future is to embrace the rapid growth of internet-connected products via embedded sensors producing massive volumes of data, and transform these traditionally discrete activities into one seamless process that is capable of real-time continuous product refinement. Firstly, mindful of the potential disruption to labour markets, we will develop new fundamental theory that relates to learning and seamless communication between products, humans, robots and factory floor operations - to ensure equality and collaborative real-time learning. Secondly, we will develop data-driven systems that provide an auditable, secure and seamless flow of information between all operations inside and outside the factory to facilitate real-time adaption and re-orientation of the entire manufacturing system based on data harvested via product-embedded sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.

The research will achieve a radical interruption of the existing 'consumer sovereignty' model based around surveys and market research - and introduce 'use sovereignty' via an embedded understanding of consumer behaviour - making products that are fit for purpose based on how they are used. This will not be unmediated but buffered by robust, secure and interpretable data analysis at scale - with ethical integration of human labour. Designers will have a completely transformed role being 'embedded in production' in a world of "chatty" products and a dynamically evolving factory floor.

Our approach will transform the ways in which traditional factories are reconfigured in real time by adopting a first mover approach to real time reconfiguration, production element reskilling (human, robot or both collaboratively). Radically, we will use exopedagogy, the first time it has ever been applied in a practical setting and couple this with insights from robotics. Exopedagogy considers alien forms of learning and uses those metaphors to develop models of learning which go beyond human learning. In contrast to existing techniques such as jet engine telemetry that allow for optimisation tweaks around a clearly defined product, our work will allow for both i) redesigns to support new uses or usage patterns; ii) generation of new products based on observing alternative use.

Planned Impact

The key impact pathways (aside from the traditional publication of scientific papers) centre around creating and learning from case studies and demonstrators of our novel approach to manufacturing in factories of the future. These will provide a grounded route to engage with industry, and a testbed for emerging knowledge as well as a high visibility public engagement output. In particular, this will allow us to create impact in the areas outlined below.

- working with our commercial partners to ensure that the research outputs are translated into usable and appropriate knowledge. To do this, we will start from a process model of existing manufacturing systems, developed alongside our user partners and work with them to develop visions of how these systems could look in the future, culminating in transformative case studies that implement the scientific novelty established through the proposed work programme. Discussions with Airbus have been successful to date, with alignments to internal projects identified and pathways to partnership and collaboration defined.

- we have the Head of Department, Skills and Labour Markets for CEDEFOP ( Centre Européen pour le Développement de la Formation Professionnelle), the EU agency for expertise on skills and vocational training on the advisory board for the project. CEDEFOP have provisionally agreed to assist us in creating a workshop of experts on the implications of our project for skills training in manufacturing in the UK and in terms of integration with European supply chains.

- the Careers and Enterprise partnership (, Tower Hamlets Local Authority and private sector careers advisors such as DMH and Associated Limited have agreed to work with us in terms of the impact of our work on skills formation and careers guidance.

- for public engagement with a wider audience we will disseminate research findings to the London Design and Engineering UTC (University and Technology College). Ts will allow us to disseminate our ideas to 14 - 19 year old students through talks and potentially workshops, hence influencing the next generation of designers and engineers regarding the potential of our project

- further utilize links to our industrial partners and MTC, HVM Catapult etc to engage with industry and explore applications in data analytics, exopedagogy, design and manufacturing resulting from this project. This will be exploited by holding at least 2 public dissemination events (one in the UK and one in Europe) open to the public and with industrial support.

- investigate the possibility of creating a commercial vehicle for our research, that would include new reskilling techniques, continuous digital ethnography and data responsive designs as areas for consultancy and deployment

- create a briefing note on the skills and societal impact of our project which we will disseminate through our website and also in discussion with youth organisations such as Soapbox ( who consider the future of digital skills for young people.

Measures of Success:
To assess the impact of this project key metrics have been identified. These include:
- At least 2 public dissemination events; one at the midpoint of the project to measure current success and applicability to industrial needs and one at the end to highlight achievements overall and resulting vision for the future.
- Publication of research outputs at a minimum of 6 peer reviewed international conferences and in 6 journals
- Securing of IP for any new technology and methodologies, including reskilling techniques, continuous digital ethnography and data responsive designs as areas for consultancy and deployment through participating institute's Technology Transfer offices.
- At least 2 well defined case studies that showcase the transformative nature of the research alongside industry partners.


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