TTM 2014 - Future of Fabrication

Manufacturing is evolving in the context of market and players as represented here in a graph by Forrester Research

Over these 300 years since the Industrial Revolution we have seen some technological disruptions that have changed the rules of the game, the first being machines powered by steam that of course, ignited the Industrial Revolution. Then it came the use of electricity, making it possibile to many more enterprises to operate machines at a lower investment level. 

After electricity, another leap was the result of the introduction of computers, first to support enterprise processes and then production processes. 

Of course, none of these (and you might think of others) happen overnight. It took quite a bit of time to move from one kind of manufacturing to the next, a time measured in decades. And all of this is going to happen in context that is evolving, as shown in the graph by Forrester Research.

Hence, if I have to look at 2035 in this area I better start looking at what is happening today in few niches and in research labs.

As I see it there are three major trends that eventually will change manufacturing in the next 20 years:

1. Emergence of Smart Materials and progress in Material Science

2. Production and Customisation at the edges

3. "Softwarization" of products and their control from a Service provider (that can also be seen as transformation of products into services).

Let's consider first the evolution in Material Science and the related aspect of emergence of Smart Materials. Nanotech is providing a way to craft materials with desired physical characteristics. By assembling atoms and molecules in a bottom up fashion engineers can create materials with higher strength, that can be flexible, that can jump back to their original shape after a deformation, that can sense a variety of physical conditions (pressure, light, sound waves...) and behave accordingly.

This allows engineers to embed "smartness" into materials and this changes the raw materials used in the production lines and the way products are being designed and will eventually operate. In turns this is going to change the skills required to production designers and along with that the players in the production area.

The second aspect is related to a variety of technologies, like 3D printers, that makes it possibile to decentralise production at the point of sale, first, and at the point of use (eventually). Clearly this is not going to happen for all products but it will happen for some (printing books in bookstores was something that happened already few years ago, it did not take off because it was superseded by digital books...).

Also, it is likely that the possibility of manufacturing at the end of the value chain will be used for customising a product, rather than for manufacturing it from scratch.  Customisation may, I would say will, take place at the edges only virtually, in the sense that we can customise our product on line, as we buy it. This is already happening but in a limited way. In the future I would expect to see cooperative manufacturing leading to customisation from the edges that involves several manufacturers. It is clearly a complex logistic and legal problem (who is going to take responsibility for the final product?) b:t it is feasible and technology evolution will make it economically viable.

The third aspect might be the one that will prove to be more disruptive and the one that is also more likely to happen, since we are seeing it growing today: the "softwarization" of products. More and more of a product characteristics (and of its appeal to the end customer) depends on its embedded software and this software can be monitored, upgraded, aggregated with other software via the network.

In turns, this enable the transformation of the product into a service, with profound changes in the biz models, in the value chains and in the industry.

Will we select a car with 120Hp and once in a while we would wish we had selected a more powerful car? No problem. The car is just a service. A tap on the dashboard (or just a vocal interaction) will download 40 extra HP for the weekend. Of course we will be asked to pay for those extra HPs, with part of the money going to the car manufacturer (or to a third party that has found a way to spice the performances), part to the insurance company for the potential increase in risk, and part in taxes (that is 100% sure!).

Drugs could be manufactured on the spot, based on our health and genomic profile, and we will buy them as a service with included monitoring of the effects plus a variety of premium services third parties will invent (ever thought about the future of the Apple healthcare app?).

All of this, as for the previous possibile evolution of fabrication, will bring along new issues from many areas that are quite far from technology and nevertheless truly intertwined with it to the point that we cannot look at one without considering the other. Something I am sure will be taking place at IEEE Technology Time Machine 2014 in San Jose next October 21st-22nd.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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