Countless predictions have been made about what 2019 will bring. But are manufacturers’ looking a decade down the road? These trends need to be on leaders’ radar not just over the next 12 months, but in the coming years.
1. Global Virtual Workforce: Merging Extended Reality with the Internet
U.S. manufacturers have struggled to find STEM-educated employees to staff their increasingly technologically advanced workplaces. But on the horizon lies a solution that will benefit businesses worldwide: the merging of extended reality—from virtual reality and augmented reality to mixed reality and augmented virtuality—with global interconnectivity.
Manufacturers are already benefiting from the use of computer-generated environments that merge the real world with visual and audio aids. Within a decade a company will be able to tap skilled workers across the globe to design products, work with engineers, and operate and maintain U.S.-based machines and equipment virtually through XR. In other words, a worldwide workforce will staff globally connected virtual-actual shop floors.
2. Linking the Human Brain to Machines
The concept of connecting human brains to machines has gained publicity due to the interest of Elon Musk, who famously prophesied that the advancement in AI means humans must eventually merge with computers or become irrelevant. Not one to just make predictions, he founded a company (Neuralink) to develop implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), with the short-term goal of treating serious brain disease and brain damage caused by a stroke.
The implications loom large for manufacturers. The biggest challenge of AI, as MIT economist David Autor has observed, is that humans know more than we can describe. If you can't explain the use of judgment, common sense, or imagination, you can't program a computer to mimic your ability. A mind-machine interface (MMI) will allow humans and machines to complement each other in what they do best, in real time. Cyborgs may be part of our distant future, but in the next decade machines and humans will literally join each other to help manufacturers make better designed, better-produced goods.
3. Nano-Based Preventive Maintenance
In the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage,” the government shrinks a submarine crew to microscopic size, then shoots them into the body of an injured scientist to repair his damaged brain. Now sci-fi has become a reality, as quantum physics combines with the digital world in medicine. For example, engineers at UC-San Diego have developed a nanobot, less than 5 millionths of a meter long, that can “swim” in the bloodstream and eventually will be used to remove particles and repair tissue.
Can the ability to place microscopic AI-enabled robots into factory systems and equipment be far behind? Already, engine maker Rolls-Royce is using miniature robots 10mm in diameter for predictive maintenance within the combustion chamber of its engines. While not by definition nanotechnology – nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, which are 1 millionth the length of a meter – it demonstrates how we’re closing in on the use of nanobots not only for predictive maintenance but for preventive maintenance, to detect flaws and actually repair equipment before it breaks down.
4. Internet of Goods: Local Production and Local Distribution
In a study published by MAPI in 2018, author Dr. Michael Mandel provides a new vision for how the Internet of Things will affect manufacturing. Mandel sees the rise of ecommerce fulfillment centers and the digitization of distribution, pioneered by Amazon, opening up new ways for manufacturers to shift from a warehouse model to a more flexible distribution process. Along with more customization made possible with robots and 3D printing, and the use of cloud computing enabling even small factories to tap into new technologies, this “Internet of Goods” will allow the creation of new business models capable of expanding the market and changing the geography of production.
5. The Exponential Generation of Leadership
All eyes are justifiably on the millennial generation (born 1980-1999), as the oldest of them prepare to take over leadership roles in the business world. But it’s the following generation – whom I labeled the "exponentials" a few years ago – that manufacturers need to put on their radar. This cohort, with birthdates starting around the turn of the millennia, is just starting to populate college campuses and technical schools around the country. They have never known a world without smartphones, the internet, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Their knowledge of and capabilities with technology will easily surpass that of the millennials—and their skillsets and 21st-century leadership style will be needed to help U.S. manufacturers compete globally in the coming decades.
Stephen Gold is president and CEO of MAPI, the Manufacturer's Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.