Credits: Jason Bloomberg. “Robots Managing Robots: Nokia’s Digital Factory Of The Future.” Forbes. June 18, 2017. Web.

 Even though Finland-based Nokia unloaded its mobile handset business on Microsoft MSFT +0.15% in 2014, it remains the second-largest mobile equipment manufacturer in the world after Sweden-based Ericsson . The company has about 100,000 employees after its acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent in 2016.

Microsoft shuttered the handset business a scant two years after the company acquired it, freeing up hundreds of skilled technical resources, especially in Oulu, as I discussed in my last article.In spite of these disruptions, Nokia still employs over 2,000 people in this small city near the Arctic Circle. In fact, the company still operates a factory there, manufacturing mobile base stations for telco service providers.Given that 5G, the next generation of mobile telephony, is right around the corner, it makes sense that much of Nokia’s R&D efforts are focused on the new technology.Touring the base station factory, however, concluding that Nokia’s innovation centers on 5G is a classic trees vs. forest mistake. In reality, the real innovation story here is the factory itself.

The Nokia factory in Oulu, Finland: the ‘Home of Radio’
The Nokia factory in Oulu, Finland: the ‘Home of Radio’

Headlong into Industry 4.0

Focusing its innovation on its factories as well as its products is a strategic priority for Nokia. “We’re building the factory of the future,” explains Erja Sankari, Head of Oulu Factory at Nokia. “Industry 4.0 includes increased automation, productivity, and use of data.”

The term Industry 4.0 has coalesced into a set of innovative disruptions in manufacturing, and Nokia has its own take on the trend.
Industry 4.0 enables a much tighter interaction of domains and in general between companies across the full product lifecycle from design and manufacturing to distribution, services and disposal

Thierry Klein, Head of Innovation Management

(Verticals at Nokia)

Quite a mouthful to be sure – but in spite of all the buzzwords, the Industry 4.0 story begins with automation. Nokia’s base station factory, in fact, sported a number of industrial robots, both for assembling products as well as for putting them in packages.

Installing such robots is only part of the automation story. Nokia also had to change the products to better support such automation. “We’re industrializing our products, which means making them friendly to automated manufacturing,” Sankari say.

For example: instead of assembling the base stations with multiple screw types, Nokia redesigned them to use a single screw type.

Simplifying the product design is only part of this industrialization effort. In addition, Nokia has been focusing on ways to make the robots easier to operate.

For example, an operator must feed large spools of tape containing electronic subcomponents into the robots. The challenge, therefore, is automating the handling of the spools as well. “Via intelligent materials handling, we use one less operator and we have better data,” Sankari says. “Eventually we’ll have robots feed the robots.”

Another area of improvement: collaborative robots. One of the stations on my tour featured a pair of robots working together, but in this case, both machines were following set programs, rather than collaborating in a dynamic sense. True collaboration between these machines, however, is right around the corner.

The Upcoming Role for 5G

To facilitate such collaboration, Nokia is looking toward 5G. “5G will help support collaborative robots, due to its low latency and high speed,” Sankari explains. “With better wireless connectivity, we are building a factory platform.”

In fact, the Nokia factory is already using the Internet of Things (IoT), as humidity and temperature sensors are critical elements of the factory’s automation environment. Such current technologies don’t require 5G, of course, as the 5G standards aren’t finalized yet. The obvious question, therefore, is what will 5G bring to the factory floor that existing technologies cannot offer?

The answer: a more flexible factory floor layout. Such flexibility will depend upon wireless connectivity, as moving equipment around and reconfiguring it is simpler when it doesn’t need a wired connection.

Combined with its speed and low latency, 5G will open the doors to new possibilities. For example, reconfiguring an assembly line to produce a different product normally requires hours or days of downtime as well as manual effort, as people must handle the reconfiguration manually.

Nokia is exploring how to handle such reconfigurations automatically – by leveraging 5G as well as collaborative robots. “We’ll be able to change the factory layout every week,” Sankari predicts.

The Future of the Factory

Today it takes three people to operate the Nokia factory, but over time the company hopes to achieve a ‘lights out’ facility, meaning one that requires no human operators whatsoever. To achieve this goal, it must take automation to the next level, where robots feed, manage, and reconfigure the robots.

5G is one of the technologies that will facilitate this vision, and the fact that Nokia is driving innovation in 5G only serves to facilitate its efforts to create the factory of the future.

Furthermore, the Oulu base station factory is only the first step in Nokia’s plans for its factory of the future, as it serves as a platform for research and development and prototyping of products, as well as Nokia’s efforts in innovating factory design. As these innovations mature, Nokia plans to roll them out to its larger factories around the world.

Nokia may be one of the leading Industry 4.0 innovators, but it’s clear that all manufacturers are moving in the same direction. The customer for manufactured goods will clearly benefit from increased quality and variety at lower cost. But what about the factory employees?

Nokia’s factory of the future effort proves that the factory workers of the next decade won’t be the traditional, blue collar employee of the past – and it’s also clear that in spite of all the automation, factory jobs aren’t going away.

After all, Nokia employs many thousands of engineers, data scientists, and other technical experts – and continued Industry 4.0 innovation will require a large cadre of such people.

Nokia is fortunate that it has a plentiful supply of such professionals in Oulu, as well as across the rest of Finland. The rest of the world, however, faces varying levels of disruption as manufacturers reinvent the role of the factory worker.

Image credit: Jason Bloomberg