Industry has evolved, particularly manufacturing, by leaps and bounds. Availability of tools first (Oldowan industry goes back 1.7Myears ago), their improvement through steam power first (XVIII century) and then electricity (XX century), then, more recently, computers (1970ies) and robots (1980ies). Robotics is now a growing transformation force in Industry, it was 3.9 billion $ (worldwide) in 2000, it is now over 12 billion $ and it is expected to grow to 24.4 by 2025. Robots will be transforming not just the industry in the coming decades but the whole value chain from supply to delivery and usage.
Robots have become more and more flexible and are starting to become aware and learn from the environment, to cooperate in a much more flexible way with other robots and with humans. Baxter was probably the first robot designed to be a co-worker of blue collars, it can be taught by a worker and being aware of what is going on around him takes care not to harm anybody. Even its “looks” have been designed to make it a team player.
Robots have several effects on the industry, on the market and on the society. I leave the latter to the last post in this series. Let’s consider the first two.
Robotised industry has a cost that is basically independent on the location (no labour cost differences that led in the past to offshoring manufacturing) and robots can now be connected to the supply and delivery chains much more effectively than in the past. This is a strong drive to the improvement of the whole value chain and a first step towards Industry 4.0. Both factors enable an economically affordable Regionalization (see figure) with smaller, distributed, factories that keep the scaling advantage through more effective supply chain and sharing of data (this is a crucial component in Industry 4.0). The data sharing among suppliers, manufacturing plants, delivery chains, retailers and users changes the rules of the game and creates a symbioses among the various autonomous systems involved in the value chain that will be more and more participating to an ecosystem (often referred to as circular economy) rather than be part of a fixed chain regulated by contracts between supplier and client.
On the market side the flexibility offered by robots shift the production paradigm from the mass customization to the product personalization. This is reinforced by the growing softwarization of products that injects both flexibility in features offered by the product and the possibility to create a relation between the user and the manufacturer plus additional relation of the user with third parties offering enhancement. Furthermore this is leading to a transformation of the product into a service. Important to notice the shift that has taken place from a demand that was greater than the supply (that in turns created a steady state of demand) typical of an industry that was not able to satisfy all the demand (after the second world war in the fities and sixties) to a situation of a supply that far exceed demand (just think about the number of apps available). Clearly this shift increases competition and drive prices down. The decreases of prices, in turns, displaces the big companies and opens up the market to small ones that operate in a symbiotic relation. Here again we see an economic drive that strenghten the evolution towards symbiotic autonomous systems.