It is often said that we are living in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution.
Mechanical production heralded the first towards the end of the eighteenth century; the implementation of mass production the second in the mid nineteenth century; electronic and IT systems the third in the late 1960s; and cyber-physical systems the fourth, with which we live today.
None has quite topped the first in terms of impact. Today, it could even be argued that technological change over the past half-century has been relatively trifling. Cars have got better and televisions flatter, but computers and the internet have not changed the world into something a West European citizen from the 1960s would not recognise.
However, the coming wave of changes and technological innovation in the manufacturing industry will be more fundamental.
Technologies that have recently been taken up by industry, such as 3D printing in factories, or the fleets of driverless trucks operating in Australian mines, would seem almost like magic to a citizen of the 1960s.
Looking further ahead, this article discerns five trends that are likely to radically impact the world of manufacturing – these trends may even form the basis for a future fifth industrial revolution.
It is often feared that robots will replace people on factory production lines. The reality is that the next wave of manufacturing robots is not being designed to replace people, but to work alongside them. These are known as collaborative robots, or cobots.
Unlike traditional industrial robots, which are often caged to keep human workers safe, cobots will sit next to people on the production lines of the future. Advanced technology will ensure safety. For example, safe stop functions will ensure a cobot instantly stops moving when a person is too close. Meanwhile, power limiting technology will guarantee that, if a cobot does make contact with a person, it reduces its force to avoid injury.
Cobots do not tire, so are suitable for repetitive, high precision jobs. Meanwhile, human workers will specialise in production line tasks they are better suited to, such as those requiring a high degree of adaptability and creativity.
Cobots currently comprise three per cent of robot sales, according to a report published jointly by the International Federation of Robotics and venture capital firm Loup Ventures. By 2025, this will jump to 34 per cent.
Blockchains use cryptography to record a series of data, verifiably logging transactions. They are currently most associated with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Essentially, blockchain provides an accurate digital ledger.
Deloitte, an accountancy firm, reports that banks save up to $12 billion annually with blockchain technologies. They predict manufacturing companies will soon tap into the potential efficiency savings that blockchain offers.
One possibility is that manufacturers could use blockchain to improve after-sales service. Data within a blockchain is decentralized and shared across nodes, so it can be used to give manufacturers a real-time shared database – providing a constantly updated map to illustrate the location of every item in their supply chain.
This will enable industrial companies to radically streamline their processes. For instance, if an OEM printing machine builder releases a machine with faulty parts, they could use blockchain to trace the parts supplier in real-time, allowing them to contain the issue and reduce time and labour costs.
Voice controlled digital assistants are on the rise. For now, they are mostly found in consumer applications, such as the Amazon Alexa. But, in the near future, digital voice recognition technology will be used across industry – from the factory workbench to management meetings.
Global manufacturers are starting to build voice recognition into a range of industrial products, such as power plant turbines. Ultimately, the technology will enable factory workers to talk directly to their machines. For example, if a maintenance engineer needs to know which part of an advanced food packaging machine needs servicing, he or she will be able to ask the machine directly. The technology will also be able to undertake predictive maintenance – with a machine able to tell an engineer “Warning: part x is likely to fail in one month. Please replace it”.
McKinsey & Co, advisor and counsellor to many of the world’s most influential businesses, describes machine learning as “based on algorithms that can learn from data without relying on rules-based programming”. McKinsey predicts that machine learning will reduce supply chain forecasting errors by 50%.
Factory machinery is increasingly connected and generates vast datasets that can be used in myriad ways. In the future, factory machines will record and monitor all available data, and will be able to learn from it to autonomously improve their own efficiency.
For example, John Deere, a manufacturer of agricultural, construction and forestry machinery, recently purchased robotics start-up Blue River Technology in order to benefit from its machine learning expertise. John Deere is now incorporating machine learning into its agricultural products, allowing automated farm machinery to use visual data to make autonomous decisions about when to use pesticide.
A recent study found that nations that invest heavily in manufacturing innovation will be more competitive than those who compete on price. A likely result of this in the coming decades will be the return of a competitive advantage in manufacturing to the developed nations of the West.
This will be driven by advances in automation technologies. In 2016 it was rumoured that Apple was speaking to its contract manufacturers about building highly automated factories to assemble iPhones in the US. It is true that such factories, if they were ever built, would rely heavily on robots and cobots, yet they would still create many jobs.
Over the coming decades, automation technology will become ever more sophisticated and cheaper. As this happens, it is likely that one of the most visibly obvious trends in manufacturing will be the construction of large numbers of ultra-modern factories in Western Europe and North America.