Smart factory, smart manufacturing, Manufacturing 4.0—these are just a few of the terms that describe the growing use of connected technologies and data analytics to enable the efficient design, production, and delivery of increasingly personalized goods across the manufacturing supply chain. If fully realized, this emerging manufacturing model could see the overturning of more than a century of industrial practice—replacing mass production with mass customization; large, specialized plants with smaller, agile factories; and in some cases humans with machines.
Consumers are driving this revolution, as their expectations of product choice/variation and speed of service spiral ever higher. Manufacturers that ultimately thrive in this new environment will be those that can master the collection, analysis, and communication of data throughout their operations and supply chains to adapt to these new market realities.
Many of the specific tools and technologies that will shape this new world of manufacturing are already in use, although not necessarily on a large scale as yet. They include:
- Digital twin—a digital image that provides a virtual footprint of a physical object or process from design and development through the end of the life cycle that can be used to anticipate operational problems and improve performance.
- 3D printing—additive manufacturing that uses computer-generated 3D blueprints to enable rapid prototyping, create complex and varied product designs, and greatly reduce material wastage.
- Cyber-physical systems—intelligent components with computing and storage capabilities that can monitor factory processes to enable predictive maintenance and minimize plant downtime.
- Augmented reality devices to improve the safety and comfort of shop-floor workers.
- IoT-enabled supply chains that provide manufacturers with real-time knowledge of product/customer demand signals.
The challenges associated with this digital transformation are significant. The vast new sums of data that these technologies generate will hold little value if suitable analytics techniques are not developed and implemented to inform intelligent decision-making across the enterprise. Moreover, to effect this transition manufacturing companies will likely have to oversee and manage widespread changes relating to staffing, skills development, organizational structure and culture, and supplier relationships.
These and related themes will be explored at Manufacturing in the Age of Experience, hosted by Dassault Systèmes, November 7-8 in Shanghai, China. Software is driving advances in smart manufacturing, and Dassault's applications use 3D design, analysis, and simulation to help companies manage new, more efficient ways of designing, producing, and supporting products.
This marks the conference's return engagement to China, and it is instructive to consider the logic behind the choice. Just 10 years after its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest manufacturer. It now stands as the world's biggest exporter of manufactured goods—and also ranks among the global leaders in high-tech product exports.
But, like many countries that have traveled this road before it, China is becoming a victim of its own success. Rising wages now threaten to render many of its lower-end manufacturing industries uncompetitive. With a tightening labor supply (partly the result of the now-discontinued one-child policy) and a burgeoning middle class, China's leaders are focusing on a smarter, leaner manufacturing model more geared to servicing its emerging domestic consumer class.
In May 2015, the Chinese government unveiled its "Made in China 2025" strategy to modernize its factories with advanced technologies, including 3D printing, the industrial internet, and robotics. The plan has set national goals of producing 100,000 industrial robots per year and placing 150 robots in operation for every 10,000 employees by 2025. In July 2015, the government announced its Internet Plus plan, designed "to integrate mobile internet, cloud computing big data, and the internet of things with modern manufacturing…"
And while China topped Deloitte's Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index for the third successive time last year, the country still lags behind manufacturing rivals such as the U.S., Japan, and Germany in many important metrics—including productivity, innovation, protection of property rights, and transparency of its legal system. To its credit, the Chinese government has recognized this and is taking actions to facilitate modernization and innovation in the country's manufacturing sector as it moves up the value chain.
Skeptics may dismiss the effectiveness of putting government in charge of cultivating innovation. However, China has already proven itself in this regard, as witnessed by the meteoric rise of Shenzhen—formerly a fishing village of 30,000 that, after being granted Special Economic Zone status in 1979, has since grown into a city of over 10 million that produces an estimated 90% of the world's consumer electronics.
The emerging world of smart manufacturing will generate winners and losers. Those who ignore China's bid to become a player in smart manufacturing will do so at their own peril.