The fourth industrial revolution is taking place at a dizzying speed. The new buzzwords are digitization, interconnectivity, artificial intelligence, data life cycles, 3D-printing, and the internet of things (IoT). Beyond buzzwords, this is all about blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological.
Consequently, the World Manufacturing Forum (WMF), hosted in Barcelona last May and funded by the EU, was all about the new paradigm of manufacturing. Speakers from both the industry and policy perspectives came together in various panels to discuss initial achievements and the challenges to be overcome. Speakers included the President of the South Carolina Manufacturing Alliance, who explained the successful re-shoring tendency in his state (for instance, BMW, Boeing 787, and tire manufacturers have factories in South Carolina). Manufacturing is no longer based on mass production paradigms, but rather on customer and environment-centred perspectives. So making stuff goes much beyond screws, grease and dirty hands. Today, manufacturing careers require the integration of engineering and computer skills as well as cognitive and management sciences. This new view of manufacturing jobs was confirmed by the executive vice-president of research and technology at Siemens, who spoke at the WMF. The solutions-driven (as opposed to product-driven) approach of many companies today requires people capable of integrating technical perspectives with those from particular customers and society as a whole.
From a policy perspective, emphasis was laid on the necessity to learn in ecosystems of organisations. Especially SME do not have the resources to invent the wheel themselves, and cross-border initiatives are set out to help companies digitize. For example, the ICT innovation for manufacturing SMEs has been recently launched under the EU Horizon 2020 umbrella. Our ongoing research highlights in that regard some key mechanisms that allow companies to share knowledge, create new ideas and translate those into new practices in such ecosystems.
Another example illustrating how making stuff is being revolutionized came from the acclaimed CNN Expansion magazine entrepreneur of the year, who explained how the integration of social media and ERP systems allowed to create a systems architecture that increased the speed of problem resolution in supply chains.
Mainstream thinking during the first day of the forum did not include many thoughts on environmental sustainability. It seemed the overly present term sustainability was limited to financial prosperity of the firm. This surprised me given the huge potential digitalization has on avoiding transport (take for example General Electric, who estimates they will send 100,000 parts all over the world, by internet and not by boat, in 2020, to be printed by 3D techniques at the point of consumption). But then, during the second day of the forum, the environmental dimension was included in several cases and a good overview study. Cases referred to a carbon recycling firm (again a success story from South Carolina) that broke even after 7/8 years of functioning and has the capacity to recycle 10-15% of the world´s scrap. Another case stemmed from the European steel sector and their project to reduce CO2 emissions by 50%.
Finally, the overview study was taken care of by McKinsey´s founder of the sustainability practice who set out ideas on the circular economy – which is diametrically opposed to the linear thinking of take-make-use-dispose inherited from the early days of industrialization. Without the need to use terms like green or sustainable, this speaker argued that the starting point is a business rationale, or an economic opportunity. By assuming responsibility across the whole life cycle and selling services/solutions, rather than lose products, companies can become a life-time partner of their customers. And what company is not interested in this?