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Invention, reinvention & ‘un-invention’

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(Image credit: Flatfile)

The manufacturing industry has been the birthplace of invention, reinvention and perhaps even ‘un-invention’ (the breaking down of processes and systems that underperform and reengineering them) for over 150 years. 

The pre-industrial world at the start of the 1800s and earlier was populated by artisan craftspeople, who were specialists in their particular creative discipline. These skilled professionals had to find new roles at the end of the century when the industrial revolution created the automatic lathe and suddenly we had a means of making screws with a machine. The crafts of yesteryear were un-invented and the smartest workers found new roles for themselves at a new point in the production line. 

The same responsibility to adapt has been changing the manufacturing business for much of the last 50 years throughout the PC revolution, which has seen an increasing amount of robotics and computer-controlled machine management brought forward.

That brief history of industrial everything takes us from Industry 0.0 (handcraft artisans) to Industry 1.0 (steam and mechanization), Industry 2.0 (combustion engines, electricity and standardization), Industry 3.0 (computers and telecommunications) and now to Industry 4.0 (Internet and cyber-physical systems). 

The next stage of un-invention 

Just as the current 4.0 age was generating a head of steam (for want of a more contemporary phrase), we have of course been living through a global pandemic. So the question we must ask ourselves now is: what elements of the data-driven manufacturing era will need invention, reinvention and un-invention next?

The most pressing areas for the most urgent un-invention are any processes and systems that have failed to move towards digital transformation. Yes it’s an overused term, but in this context it means any manufacturing workload that doesn’t make full potential use of data and leverage it to improve production and to engage with the entire supply chain inside which it exists.

The pandemic has shown us where manufacturing operations are least agile and able to change to the so-called new normal. Further, it should have also helped show where manufacturing ecosystems are least resilient, unsustainable and least un-inventable and able to adapt.

Voluminous volatility and variance 

Although we’re using this term un-invention with a little artistic license (you can check the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster, it doesn’t exist), it does help us illustrate the fact that disruptive forces, such as those we have experienced in 2020, can happen at any time.

In manufacturing today and going forward, we need to remember that disruptions are caused by a number of different reasons. Platform-level changes in technology can have a massive impact (e.g. affordable additive manufacturing). While currently prohibitively expensive to many industries, 3D printing could be a real disruptor when it becomes more affordable. Also, as products themselves are changing from “dumb” to “smart,” this changes their relationship with customers. Consider also democratized data analytics for all, or even the ‘next Twitter’ (when it comes) and so on. All of these factors are hugely disruptive even when they are positive advancements. And when they are negative forces created by competitors, the effects can be compounded. 

Longer-term, changes in consumer habits, tastes and trends can also drive manufacturing disruption, as can economic volatility or forces of nature. Think of the automotive industry during this global pandemic; workers stuck at home don’t need a car or public transport, so the successful ones un-invented their journey to the office and made sure they had robust tools to work remotely and securely.

The pandemic has pushed us towards the future of manufacturing by almost five years. Before, many companies had started or had plans to start a digital transformation. Suddenly, a new unforeseen critical factor was added: staying in business.

Cloud clears the way 

The importance of cloud-centric, service-based, IT services can not be overstated in the context of how manufacturing will now develop. We can already see that as many as 40 percent of manufacturers are using IoT sensor data to diagnose issues and reduce downtime, which requires predictive maintenance delivered from backend compute engines in a datacentre. At the same time, 50 percent of new IT infrastructure will be deployed at the edge, so connectivity is key. 

We also know that the manufacturing “factory of the future” will be part-virtual and are seeing some 35 percent growth in digital twins to create a virtual representation of the factory to monitor in real-time what is happening and eventually simulate a new production to check if the current setup of machines can sustain that new production. But overall the concept of Manufacturing as a Service can be obtained by applying five core principles, or five Cs: Connected; Collaborative; Cloud-centric; Customer-focused and Continuous (improvement, to learn from the past). 

If we can embody all five Cs in our strategic forward-facing approach to development, then we can use cloud to drive manufacturing to a point where we champion an API-first strategy and offer manufacturing services through external APIs to the outside world and internal APIs to the internal world. It's not only by integrating with SaaS providers or partners, but imagine if a factory could accept your order to produce stock of a well-defined product and once done, send it on your behalf to another factory specialised in packaging. 

When adopting a cloud-based strategy, the platform must support low-code development to visually create integration flows to speed up time-to-market and create new innovative services or applications. This will help to give a new democratized level of power back to people to empower all levels of users to collaborate and create more synergy with processes and technology. Cloud is also a step towards the creation of a modern event-driven responsive architecture. With a responsive architecture, it is possible to process critical real-time factory events and support operations with immediate actions. You gain the necessary agility for the so-called new normal.

A hybrid cloud architecture allows us to decide what applications or systems to migrate and when. Although we’re talking about disruption, positive transformation and un-invention, no manufacturing concern should ever move to the cloud with a big bang approach. Within a modern cloud-native architecture, it is possible to provide out-of-the-box scaling to increase service availability and speed up the release cycle of new services. And all of this happens with increased processing at the edge (i.e. on the IoT devices themselves) taking advantage of 5G and serverless computing patterns.

Un-inventing the next era of manufacturing 

Manufacturing in any form isn’t going away any time soon. But, if manufacturers want to remain competitive in the new world order, they have to look towards digital transformation. Specifically they need to evolve their rigid, legacy application architectures into highly flexible digital platforms using modern cloud-based technologies that adapt quickly to rapidly changing business requirements.  

Many of the processes, workflows and methodologies that have been used throughout the start of the Industry 4.0 era will remain in place and help to guide us towards the next phase of growth. But, at the same time, this is a period where we need to achieve a new level of sustainability, agility and resiliency, so don’t be surprised if some industry elements get surprisingly fast-tracked or unexpectedly shelved and uninvented.

Alessandro Chimera, Director Digitalisation Strategy, TIBCO