Exciting times lie ahead for manufacturing worldwide


Picture of Li Yong
Li Yong

Vice-Chair of the China Association of International Trade Expert Committee

Manufacturing never stands still. Shifts in the geography of production and in the nature and scope of manufacturing output are constantly shaped by major societal trends and by the changing characteristics of industrial development along with scientific and engineering advances. Competitive advantage is determined by cost advantages in the short-run, but in the longer-run it is the ability to innovate that makes a country great.

The way to identify these trends is through proper business intelligence, solid research and a strategic perspective. Using these, can we identify the key technological trends driving the future of manufacturing and the drivers of competitiveness. And identifying future technological developments must start with a good grasp of the underlying factors that lead to these trends.

Complex manufacturing will demand human skills to deal with specialised new tools that can machine to very precise and tight specifications

The most important factor shaping manufacturing and its technologies is globalisation. Global economic integration has made possible the continuous re-orchestration and relocation of production into new forms of value creation and innovation. International trade has increased dramatically, and industrial research, design and engineering is also moving around, profiting from the insights of scientists and engineers from all over the world. There can be no doubt that innovation will come from many more corners of the world in years to come.

Demographic change will also shape the future of technology and manufacturing. Populations will continue to grow in many developing countries, shifting demand away from traditional markets. The world’s growing population will also be concentrated in cities, creating challenges in terms of transport congestion, water availability and quality, air pollution and waste disposal. At the same time, people will be older, with more leaving the labour force than entering it, and with experienced workers being replaced by younger less-experienced ones. There will of course be great pressure on pensions and healthcare systems.

Consumers’ behaviour patterns will also change. There will be growing demand, particularly in the developing world, for branded and personalised products. And consumers worldwide will expect rapid innovation and the speedier production and delivery of goods and services. Some consumers will be willing to pay premium prices for custom-made products.

Manufacturing production will have to be better distributed across the world so that job opportunities are available for all

As the impact of climate change on human well-being becomes greater, the pressure to make production processes more environmentally sustainable will increase. Manufacturing processes are resource and energy intensive, and not very good at dealing with waste. Calls for resource and energy efficient manufacturing products and processes will therefore get louder and will involve larger sections of the population.

Growing societal concerns about income and regional inequalities will also shape technological developments. Manufacturing production will have to be better distributed across the world so that job opportunities are available for all. Manufacturing products will have to be designed taking into account income differentials so that all types of demand are catered for.

What are the main technological developments that will emerge? Two areas need to be looked at to attempt an answer to this. First, there’s the likely science and engineering advances and the technologies arising from these, and second, the emerging trends in manufacturing and our responses to these. Although some of the boundaries between science and engineering are difficult to define, five areas are likely to be critical to manufacturing industries over the next few years. Solid state electronics and developments in computer sciences and telecommunications engineering have opened a range of possibilities for individual electronic devices just as they have for large infrastructure systems and the internet. The power of computing will continue to increase, and progress in this field will be enhanced by developments in photonics, in which information signals carried by electrons are converted to photons and vice versa.

Emerging technologies will include a host of artificial intelligence developments allowing computers to mimic biological systems and engage in complex game playing and design. Sensors will develop pervasively and will be used in all types of manufacturing and transport equipment, security systems, medical technology and personal care devices. Information storage and transmission will be facilitated by optical devices, cloud computing and the capacity to handle large amounts of data which will affect the computing and telecommunications industry leading to more advanced computers and smartphones and wider bandwidth for internet transmission.

Closely related to electronics is production engineering technology. Until the 1980s, automation was based on hard-wired relay logic panels, but that all changed with the digital revolution. The automation of production systems will continue apace, with increasing integration between product design and production system engineering. Electronic production process controls will allow more self-configuration of production systems, which means they can adapt very quickly to changed process requirements. The use of robots in manufacturing will become rampant as their positional accuracy improves. The digital integration of business processes, manufacturing processes and supply chains will also accelerate. And production systems that can manufacture on demand, as is already the case in the printing and music industries, will expand into other industries.

The power of computing will continue to increase, and progress in this field will be enhanced by developments in photonics

A major technological breakthrough will be the use of additive manufacturing which spans a variety of techniques to build solid parts by adding layers of materials. Such applications have taken advantage of rapid prototyping and the production of parts with customised geometries, and have already been introduced for some consumer products, medical implants and in the tools and aerospace sectors. It’s expected that by 2030 this technology will have so improved that it will compete strongly with today’s more traditional manufacturing techniques.

Bio and medical technologies clearly have great potential. Biomanufacturing will harness living systems either by purifying a natural biological source or genetically engineering an organism. Industrial biotechnology is likely to have an impact on the food, chemicals, energy, pharmaceuticals and textile industries. Biopharmaceuticals are leading to the replacement of antibiotics and vitamins by recombinant proteins, monoclonal antibodies and gene therapy.

Another rapidly emerging field is tissue engineering and the use of biological processes to control and direct the behaviour of cells. The focus is on creating complex biological materials like bones, organs or blood cells, and there will be wider use of robotically assisted surgery, 3D scanning, self-diagnosis devices and materials such as titanium with appropriate biocoatings to treat conditions as different as osteoporosis and cancer.

Advanced materials that are lighter and much more energy efficient will open the way to novel products and improved production processes. Developments in material sciences are set to revolutionise metals, polymers, ceramics and superconductors, composites and biomaterials. The need for improved recycling and reprocessing will see demand for these advanced materials growing fast, as is the case for all environmental and energy technologies. Climate change mitigating technologies include carbon capturing and storage, sector/activity-specific technologies to reduce industrial gases and renewable energy for plants. Green technologies for energy intensive industries like steel, cement, pulp and paper, aluminium and chemicals, and for a wide range of downstream manufacturing sectors are already enjoying a boom in demand.

Bio and medical technologies clearly have great potential. Biomanufacturing will harness living systems either by purifying a natural biological source or genetically engineering an organism

But there are a number of practices that have yet to emerge to complement these emerging technologies. This is vitally important for both industrialised and emerging markets if they are to utilise both manufacturing flexibility and policy change to take advantage of growing demand in the global economy. Distributed manufacturing means the ability to manage complex operations across a vast set of different production environments, and to adapt at the same time to a global customer base. Distributed manufacturing will require tightly interlinked value chains that can respond simultaneously and in a co-ordinated way. It will demand agile supply chains that can anticipate market trends to respond rapidly to shifting demand. To do so will require a continuous flow of information on both products and processes.

Rapid response manufacturing focuses on companies’ capacity to take advantage of changes in consumer preferences, manufacturing conditions, innovations and social demands. Achieving this means the ability to manage change including the relocation of production to achieve economies of scale. Organisational changes will include ‘war room’ teams combining production, procurement, logistics and sales departments.

Complex manufacturing will lay greater emphasis than ever on companies’ capacity to deal with a growing mix of product requirements and accelerated rates of innovation. And complex manufacturing will demand human skills to deal with specialised new tools that can machine to very precise and tight specifications. It will also call for an ability to identify technologies that improve through better human interfaces, and will require companies that are courageous enough to mix novel untested technologies and very different raw materials.

Customised manufacturing (‘mass customisation’) will address the demand for personalised products by producing an increasingly heterogeneous mix in small and large volumes (e.g. personalised medicine, personalised eye lenses and personalised clothing). Essentially, what will be required is the organisational flexibility to respond to a much wider set of product specifications in shorter time frames, and at affordable prices; to adapt to local regulations and markets while selling globally; to address special needs groups; and, to reach populations in poorer markets. Crucially important to this personalisation will be the attaching of a range of differentiated services to products. And this customised manufacturing will also have to be sustainable manufacturing, reducing the use of raw materials and energy, polluting less and recycling both waste and products at the end of their usefulness.

Exciting times lie ahead for manufacturing. The technological, managerial, organisational and skill challenges will be enormous and will take place in a world that’s moving faster. The competitiveness of nations, industries and companies will depend on their ability to deal simultaneously with all these forces. World trade will continue to increase and will feature more players. Traditional industrial approaches will no longer work, as the industries themselves are going to be constantly redefined by technological change. Companies’ success will increasingly depend on the speed of their responses to varied, deep and unpredictable changes.

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