Robots will build robots in ABB’s $150m “factory of the future”

Image of a robot arm building equipment in an automated factory

Engineering giant ABB is committing $150 million to the building of a fully-automated factory in China that will employ artificial intelligence to build industrial robots.

ABB says the entire factory will be modelled as a digital twin, where human operators will remotely manipulate and maintain the physical space through a digital interface.

The setup, powered by in-house ABB software, will feature tailored dashboards for senior management, engineers, operators and maintenance experts.

The process includes gathering analytical information on the health and performance of the robots as they work in order to better-conserve energy and preempt any potential anomalies.

The Swiss-Swedish engineering group is aiming to open its new factory in Shanghai by the end of 2020. It will be based near ABB's China robotics campus, as the company aims to defend its place as the country's largest manufacturer of industrial robots.

"The concept behind this factory is the same advice we give our customers every day: invest in automation solutions that provide flexibility and agility to grow in whichever direction the market goes," said president of ABB's Robotics and Motion division Sami Atiya.

"ABB is proud to help our customers in China and around the world with solutions that take full advantage of the latest technologies to meet the challenges of mass customization, faster cycles and constant change which have become the new normal - even in our own factories."

Rather than fixed assembly lines that populate conventional factories, ABB's floor plan will be based on "interlinked islands of automation", the company said.

The factory space will also feature automatic guided carts that can follow robots as they move through production, and supply them with parts from stations.

"The concept behind our new factory is to make the smartest and most flexible use of every meter of production," said Managing Director of ABB's Robotics business Per Vegard Nerseth. "That comes from combining agile automation solutions with the great capabilities of our people."

A comprehensive on-site R&D centre will also be built into what the company claims will represent the "factory of the future", with advances in AI research in turn used to improve factory performance. This could increase both the type of robots manufactured, as well as the variants of each type.

The Shanghai-based factory will form part of ABB's global robotics supply system alongside upgraded sites in Sweden, as well as Michigan, USA.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Features Editor

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.