5 Digital Trends That Will Define Manufacturing’s Future
- Even as Industry 4.0 advances, the next industrial revolution is on the horizon.
- People will work more closely with machines, and machines will be able to automate adaptively.
- The result will be faster, more resilient manufacturing and a new era of “instant” mass customization.
Manufacturing is everywhere, yet it’s easy to miss. The industry has become so good at getting products from factory floor to kitchen cupboard that the process is almost invisible. Aside from when an occasional large shipping truck passes you on the motorway, an invisible hand seems to guide the goods.
It’s a testament to the rising influence of Industry 4.0 and the digital capabilities that underpin it. But manufacturing’s technological evolution isn’t finished quite yet.
Remember the panic buying of soap and toilet paper when the pandemic first arrived? It was a stark reminder that this vast industry everyone relies on can still be shocked and disrupted—its resilience tested, its outputs less certain than perhaps once believed.
Of course, the age of lockdowns has revealed numerous successes and demonstrated the power of platforms and remote collaboration. However, it also laid bare some of the macro issues that still have the power to upend plans. Agility and responsiveness, supply chains, and operational resilience are all being tested by demand for greater sustainability, empowered consumers, political instability, the data deluge, and hyper-connected everything.
Wasn’t Industry 4.0 Meant to Address This?
The fourth industrial revolution—Industry 4.0—has been around for the better part of a decade. The power of data-driven, intelligent automation has transformed manufacturing along with every other major sector, but it’s far from finished.
Thus far, the technologies, platforms, and skill sets needed to implement and benefit from Industry 4.0 have been available only to corporations with the scale and global footprint to absorb the costs of experimentation.
Those technologies need to be available to manufacturers of every size and budget. But while the world waits for that to happen, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, analytics, robotics, and 3D printing is spawning new capabilities that suggest another industrial revolution is waiting around the corner.
Call it “Industry 5.0.” It’s the next phase of digitalization, where the platforms and digital assets being created today can “talk among themselves” while humans and computers work together more harmoniously. But if it’s going to deliver the goods, manufacturing will have to keep evolving and getting better. Here are five developments that will pull the future forward in the next six to 10 years.
1. Design and Simulation Will Happen Across the Entire Product Lifecycle
With all the data captured in the conceptualization, creation, sale, and even the eventual return or disposal of a product, centralized feedback loops are starting to emerge between manufacturing phases. Digital twins are one outcome of this; model-based systems are another. When combined, they can potentially comprise a system in which every production stage is connected to the other, improving and learning as information is shared back and forth.
When a part is manufactured today, the design and engineering focus is naturally on that one part. But in a mechanical system, any individual piece is attached to other pieces. Whether it’s an engine component or a gear inside a wind turbine, it’s just one connected part of a bigger end product.
People need tools that can recognize when the design of one part changes and calculate how that change could alter the shape of other parts, as well as any impact on the performance of the overall structure.
Under Industry 5.0, you will see systems that consider those interdependencies and enable system-level optimization. Currently, automated optimization workflows really only happen at a component level whereas systems are largely configured manually. Real-time connection of heterogeneous data sets can automate the optimization of large complex systems. This can significantly speed up the product development process.
2. A New Internet of Connected Digital Twins Will Emerge
As technological convergence becomes more and more prevalent, cross-platform communication and compatibility will become essential. With the arrival of 5G, the technical architecture for hyper-connectivity is taking shape. That will lead to a world where an even more advanced interplay among systems, people, and devices is possible.
Consider the rapid adoption of digital twin technology during the pandemic. In the next decade, you could see the development of digital twins that can cooperate and interact with one another in different contexts—a network or an ecosystem that becomes a sort of parallel worldwide web.
As smart cities and automated transport systems take hold, the data being captured is very, very rich. Leaving it in isolation will only diminish its value; it needs to be shared. But protecting intellectual property will become even more critical in that context, so expect technologies like blockchain to play a part in keeping any data shared between digital twins secure.
3. Augmented Intelligence Will Turn Machines Into Colleagues
Industry 5.0 will usher in a new era of human-computer collaboration. The rapid adoption of digital technologies has generated a lot of speculation about machines replacing humans. What’s actually happening is machines are learning to collaborate on an entirely new level with people. What you’re looking at now is the arrival of augmented intelligence, in which cognitive computing capabilities help humans make better decisions, faster.
European sporting goods retailer Decathlon, for example, is now using AI to design and manufacture its performance bicycles more efficiently, making them lighter, more durable, and faster while slashing design-phase emissions.
As machines in the workplace become smarter and more connected, Industry 5.0 will lead to the creation of a more collaborative partnership for operations, automation of tasks and processes that are currently too complex for software alone to handle.
4. Manufacturing as a Service Will Move From Concept to Reality
As supply chains become more diversified and connected through digital networks, a new kind of democratization will be triggered. Consumers will effectively become system integrators, weaving together complex manufacturing processes and setting their own configurations at the click of a button.
Looking at what’s already available in e-commerce, it’s not difficult to imagine a platform where, if you needed a new kitchen gadget, you’d simply log on and select the colors, components, materials, dimensions, and functions you wanted.
When the technological capabilities of Industry 5.0 are in place, that will become easier and almost instantaneous. You’ll be sending the order directly to a machine for rapid fabrication while triggering a fulfillment process for next-day delivery—maybe even same-day.
5. Mass Customization Will Make “Instant and Bespoke” the Norm
Goods will be required on a shorter timescale, with more requirements for customization than ever before. Systems and machinery that allow products to be delivered rapidly already exist. Amazon, for example, is working toward offering some products built-to-order in 24 hours. In the next few years, that will extend to other retailers and categories, with huge implications for manufacturing—and retail.
Products and merchandising as they are now understood could effectively cease to exist. If everything is configurable on the Internet and quickly made to order, there’s arguably no need for retail space.
Finishing the Job of 4.0
Before any of these trends can advance, however, the promise of Industry 4.0 has to be realized. So far, it’s still a playground for major manufacturers. The middle tier of manufacturing—the biggest tier by far—still hasn’t fully benefited from the advent of digital.
To bridge the gap, experiments are underway to help turn today’s factory equipment into quasi-digital devices capable of sharing data and taking automated instruction.
Meanwhile, tech companies are refining their small and medium enterprise offerings and scaling solutions and revenue models to accommodate the budgets of smaller manufacturers. The democratization of digital manufacturing is happening, but it simply needs to go faster and the process be expanded to include the upstream design data and downstream usage data to facilitate feedback loops to enable true product evolution. There are indeed a lot of hurdles to overcome before the next industrial revolution can truly begin, but now is the time to anticipate and prepare for the next industry revolution, Industry 5.0.