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Elon Musk’s Gigafactory and the rise of the high-tech, robot-run smart factory

In today’s advanced factories, advanced robots are making it a little lonelier out there on the assembly line

Elon Musk, as we have all been told by tech media and the genius himself, is a man with a plan. And while the public has witnessed rockets launches, Hyperloop tests, and cars that drive themselves, this week’s Gigafactory opening may be one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that Musk is making the future happen right now.

The small segment of the finished factory that opened earlier this week is just a fraction of what will be the world’s largest enclosed structure, a solar-powered, semi-automated, battery-making machine capable of churning out enough cells for more than half a million Tesla cars a year. By housing production, assembly, and other facets of the process under one roof, the company can churn out product at a more competitive price. The structure’s massive roof, covered in solar cells, will also allow the factory to produce its own energy. In many ways, it’s a marvel more impressive than the devices and products it creates.

It’s also a sign of the rapidly shifts taking place in the world of manufacturing. Normally, what attracts our attention are the shiny, streamlined gadgets, not the huge buildings where they’re made. But increasingly, the technology companies use to create, build, assemble, and ship is getting more and more sophisticated, utilizing commercially available concepts on an industrial level.

The concept of a smart home, with every device communicating, working in sync, and even learning and teaching itself how to function more efficiently, has been a constantly hyped goal of the tech world. Now imagine interconnected machines working across a massive manufacturing plant, humming along as they help build cars, load shipments, and create consumer goods.

This new era in manufacturing has been called many things—Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, the Digital Enterprise—and while dozens of technologies and buzzwords are being tested and tossed around, here are some similarities found across different industries. A cocktail of new and emerging technologies will help make the manufacturing process lean, intelligent, and cost-effective: 3D printing will lead to customization and distributed fabrication, the Internet of Things will allow the entire assembly line to communicate, robotics with improved sensors will automate and make everything more precise, and Big Data will analyze it all and wring out any additional efficiencies available.

Many facets of things technology have already crept into workplaces. Amazon may be one of the most cited early adopters. In 2012, the commerce giant spent $775 to purchase Kiva, a company that makes robots made to speed up warehouse work and increase the turnaround time for e-commerce companies. The commerce giant began to utilize the robots in their warehouses two years later, and today, the machines are dramatically cutting the company’s "click-to-ship" time.

A recent Deutsche Bank study found that robots cut the standard time it took to find and pack items for shipment from 60-75 minutes to a mere 15. The same study discovered that outfitting a warehouse with Kiva robots means it can hold 50 percent more inventory, since the robots are more nimble than human counterparts on forklifts, and cut operating costs by 20 percent, a savings of $22 million per warehouse.

With the possibility for those kinds of savings, companies around the globe are racing to find new ways to incorporate this next-generation technology (Amazon is seeking robots to perform more complex tasks). Some Ford factories utilize "co-bots" that do much of the heavy lifting for their human colleagues. China has made upgrading industrial facilities part of its latest Five-Year Plan and has invested considerable resources in robots. A Boston company called Rethink Robotics has created robots meat to serve as aides to human workers who can make coffee, solve a Rubik’s cube, and even make a salad (nicknamed "Julia Child," the machine acquired the new skill by watching a YouTube video).

Taking advantage of just-in-time logistics technology, these high-tech sites have also help decrease the carbon footprint of manufacturing, a sector traditionally associated with billowing smokestacks and pollution. Sprawling plants and warehouses are now being covered in green roofs and solar panels. Method, a home goods company, produces its line of natural cleaners in a LEED Platinum facility in Chicago with wind turbines, solar panels, and a rooftop solar garden, and like the Gigafactory, Sputnik, a Swiss company that creates photovoltaic inverters, makes its products in a factory that runs, in large part, off solar power.

Of course, efficiency and sustainability are great, until you factor in some of the social costs of automation. While politicians keep clamoring for factories to come back to the U.S. after operating overseas, when a company does return, they often bring high-tech assembly lines along with them, meaning the new business requires just a fraction of the employees it once did. The Boston Consulting Group believes a quarter of all manufacturing tasks will be automated by 2025, compared to 10 percent today.

It’s not just U.S. jobs, of course, being threatened by automated manufacturing. Adidas recently said it will open a "Speedfactory" in Ansbach, Germany, this year with "sewbots" that can automatically thread together a trainer. It certainly looks cool in a Jetson’s future sort of way, but along with cutting the cost and carbon emissions that would come from the old model of shipping from Asian factories, it also means cutting jobs (Adidas alone employs roughly one million workers in Asia). The International Labour Organization says that nearly 90% of garment and footwear jobs in Cambodia are under threat from sewbots, and Nike announced its also working on similar technology. One Chinese company, which currently employs thousands of workers, wants to replace so many human workers with robots that they can run "dark factories," since the mechanized workforce won’t need lights to see.

"Disruptive" has become a cliche in the tech world, but the machines and processes changing manufacturing have the potential to make massive impacts, positive and negative, as they become more and more common. With so many new developments, it’s hard to tell what future factories will look like. But it’s likely they’ll make the process of creating new things as exciting and intriguing the final product.