The Fourth Industrial Revolution has begun, and there is wide agreement this revolution will involve cyber-physical systems with human-machine interaction and lots of data. But many still wonder what the revolution is about and what to expect as consumers and manufacturers.
Many of the key concepts have existed for more than 30 years, but only recently have computer systems and IT infrastructure matured so they can support the volume and complexity of manufacturing data. The initial focus of these efforts centered on increasing the efficiency and productivity of existing processes to cut operation expenses. This approach led to speculation that we could save over $1 trillion by 2025.
But the cost-savings model is limited. Firms will quickly achieve most of their savings by addressing obvious inefficiencies and then spend most of their time scraping out the last 25 percent. The savings will reach a point of diminishing returns, future improvement projects will be canceled and current processes will be locked in.
Sustainable growth requires an imperative that is unbounded and necessitates new companies and sectors. Manufacturing leaders generally agree the current computer-aided systems are legacy and need to be rethought. This will require significant investment, and without an adequate incentive it will never happen. This has been the reason the industry has been slow to mature compared with other industries. Unfortunately, cost savings are not an adequate incentive.
The best choice is an innovation driver. Because there is unlimited opportunity to create new products and services, product innovation will be the foundation of the revolution and lead to a rapid evolution of the industry.
Current design and engineering processes take far too long to realize. 3D printing has started people thinking of the boundless creativity that can be achieved in the physical world. 3D printing is not the ultimate answer either because products we use are composed of many components that are professionally designed and engineered to meet stringent requirements. These requirements are then turned into physical products by experts in design and engineering.
The challenge for the current industrial revolution: Cut to two weeks the time it takes to get from concept to product. This will enable rapid product evolution and creation.
To achieve this feat, it will require the industry to rethink how we manufacture everything.
New tools and technologies are needed to expand design and engineering capabilities to a larger community while maintaining the quality and safety necessary for proper fit and function. We also need increased manufacturing capacity located close to the consumer to reduce transit time and cost since products will be manufactured on demand. The manufacturing processes will need to be instrumented using sensors and analytics to understand where the error and deviation from plan occur so finished products can be produced correctly the first time.
The second facet is a complete digital genealogy of the product from the design through the manufacturing processes with high-resolution data from sensors and equipment. This will let us understand how each design and engineering decision manifests itself in production. The product will also need to be instrumented to understand how these decisions express themselves during the product lifecycle. The feedback loop will let firms develop analytics that will reduce the trial-and-error processes required to manufacture quality products.
This will require manufacturers to adopt and operationalize enterprise wide “connected assets,” predictive analytics, and solutions for advanced materials.
A manufacturing revolution that embraces change and innovation will provide the boundless growth we have seen in other industries and create manufacturing firms that will rival the technology giants. By opening up the creativity of the world community to produce and design new products, we will have a new generation of products that will change the way we interact with the physical world.