The future of manufacturing has been a hot topic recently. With many western economies looking to re-calibrate after the financial crash, the likes of Germany’s Mittlestadt have been touted as the answer for countries looking to build their high-end manufacturing base.
The UK’s Foresight department are in the process of producing a report into the future of manufacturing that will look into things such as 3D printing, which of course was one of the main disruptive technologies mentioned in a recent McKinsey report.
Against this backdrop is a new report by Dachis group into how social business can impact upon manufacturing. The report focuses a bit too much on social marketing for my liking, but there are some interesting nuggets in there, such as a possible collaboration between the big data generated by manufacturing hardware and the social tools used by the people that work with that hardware. So for instance, if plant is not operating effectively, a trigger would automatically be generated, and employees could use social tools to find a solution.
Such a notion is already commonplace, as stopping to fix problems rather than patching them up is a central tenet of the Toyota Production System that dominates global manufacturing. Whether utilising social tools to help employees find answers to the problems they face is open to debate. A big part of the lure of this philosophy is that the pain of stopping production in order to fix the problem is so painful that applying a quick and effective solution is paramount. In such a fast paced environment there may be limited instances where deliberate collaboration with distant colleagues would be useful.
Sadly the report fails to touch on the ways that leading manufacturers are using social tools in more appropriate ways, such as for instance in product development. Lego famously opened up their new product development to some of its most devoted customers. With open science gaining ground it also seems inevitable that pharma companies will be taking advantage of social tools to open up their research and development, in much the same way as General Electric did with the Quirky community, and of course Eli Lilly did with Innocentive. Likewise Ford are utilising social tools to allow their best customers to road test new models, thus giving them excellent feedback before the cars are rolled out en masse.
With things such as 3D printing likely to hit the mainstream over the next few years, it seems that the main role of social tools will be in fostering the collaboration and feedback required in the design phase, not the manufacturing phase. It will be much the same as we’ve seen already in the open source movement, where people work together on software ideas before largely developing that software independantly.
When such an environment emerges, there will also no doubt be opportunities for individuals to scale their operations using crowdfunding models. We have already seen with sites like Kickstarter that manufacturing projects have reached the market off the back of little more than a prototype. Coupled with the rise in 3D printing this will surely make manufacturing a more distributed, and of course a more social, affair.
With manufacturing being such a large employer in both developed and developing worlds of course, there will be signficant social ramifications if people become equipped to manufacture their goods from the comfort of their own home. It’s a debate that I covered last month with Andrew McAfee and Jared Lanier debating the pros and cons of such a world.
Of course, predicting the future is fraught with difficulties, but what seems certain is that there are interesting times ahead.