On the future of manufacturing

modelling additive manufacture

I was invited last week to talk about the future of manufacturing at an event run by the manufacturing practice of one of the big law firms. Here's a whistle stop summary. It's a mind-blowing vista.


On considering political, economic, social and technological factors, it's unarguable that we're contemplating major flux in manufacturing. As with any flux, today's players will either win out or lose out, and clearly everyone in this room wishes to contribute to and participate in the winning side of things!

With that in mind, I'd like to explore some major themes:

  • Dehumanisation
  • Dematerialisation
  • Decentralisation
  • Deindustrialisation

That list sounds fairly destructive, yet I believe manufacturing is then transformed, manufacturing is vital, and manufacturing is more exciting than ever.


It's not easy to define what it means to be and to feel human, but it typically entails things such as being able to exercise critical thinking, autonomy, spontaneity, imagination, to participate in social groups and to feel a sense of self-esteem.

We've transitioned, in good part at least, from the inhuman aspects of Taylorism – the discredited facets of so-called scientific management – to empowering cellular organisation. Goodbye time-and-motion; hello sociocratic circles.

And those empowering approaches developed as part and parcel of the Toyota Production System and by other pioneering manufacturers are now infecting org design for all functions and disciplines across all variety of organisation. It's integral to the management philosophy that appreciates decisions are perhaps best made by those closest to the situation, those most aware of the facts and the implications.

And yet factory life / production / the supply chain is leading the way again, but this time returning slowly but surely to regard the human in mere automaton terms. We’re connecting the environment that surrounds them. We're wielding information technologies to attenuate variation, to optimise, to increase responsiveness. To the advocates this is "smart manufacturing". To the critics it’s workplace surveillance that disempowers employees, stripping away their autonomy.

You're on the shopfloor with a heads-up display being fed instructions by a machine. You comply. In fact, to reach for another neoligism, you may have been Uberized.

Reportedly, a Fedex driver must explain every deviation he makes from the computer's navigational instruction ... so much for the freedom of the open road! And yet vehicles will soon need no driver at all ...

Advanced robotics today is almost incomparable with the field of robotics at the turn of the century. The degree of awareness and autonomy that is now possible allows robots to work right alongside and with people in complex recognition, cognition and manipulation tasks. The self-driving vehicle is, of course, a robot. It might not be classed as intelligent per se, but smart enough to allow the passenger to kick back and do something more interesting instead. And of course today's employed driver can be "redeployed" [air quotes to convey scepticism!]

Think of the Amazon warehouse worker filling in until the robots are ready for the most advanced tasks. Think about the white collar analyst, now out-analyzed for mere pennies on the pound ...

Such artificial intelligence was once the domain of those with privileged access to incredible computing resources and pretty fancy software. Until this month that is when Google open sourced TensorFlow. That’s it. Help yourself! Things are changing so fast that I had to revisit the stuff I wanted to cover here to include such things playing out right now.

And these things impact us all, not just those in manufacturing or logistics. When an outcome that impacts your life is the product of complex software we’ve entered the realm that author and academic Frank Pasquale labels the black box society. As one series of comedy sketches puts it:

Computer says "No".

It becomes humanly impossible to unpick the reasons, the rationale. This dehumanising trend in business has reached the point that warrants its own label, and quite aptly it's Digital Taylorism.


I've just discarded a CD player, a thousand CDs, and three iPods. I will never need anything like them again.

We've just bought a new dishwasher. It will probably be the last one we buy. Next time we'll be buying dishwashing. In providing this service the manufacturer is incentivised to extend the application of Reliability Centred Maintenance beyond the factory floor to its machines in our homes.

The so-called sharing economy is recognition that my street really only needs one lawnmower, one drill, one jet washer. Not only is that preferable in terms of money and finite resources, but sharing and favours and obligations to one another are recognised as a key component of healthy community.

A study by the University of Texas estimates that 90% penetration of self-driving cars in America would be equivalent to a doubling of road capacity and would cut delays by 60% on motorways and 15% on suburban roads. A study of Singapore's transportation needs concluded that the mobility needs of its entire population could be met by one third of the cars on the country's roads today if these were self-driving taxis.

Less stuff. Less infrastructure. Product-as-a-service is dematerialisation. It's demassification. It's decarbonisation.

Such product service systems are no longer a point of differentiation, they are a fundamental basis by which manufacturing remains relevant. It's the interweaving of the physical and the informational, the atoms and the bits. We do more with less atoms, with less energy, with greater intelligence.

Dematerialisation is considered mission critical in sustainability terms, in terms of using our planet's finite resources more parsimoniously, but the term sustainable has broader meaning, the perfect segue to ....


Given the growing appreciation of the nature of complexity and the complexity of nature, we know we’re in the domain of systems thinking and sustainability – the health and resilience of living systems including our planet, our societies, and our organisations, including our manufacturers and associated supply chains.

Decentralisation enhances agility, resilience and self-healing. It's why you don't see Mother Nature centralising anything.

Now manufacturing couldn’t cope with complexity in the mid-20th Century. The Toyota Production System pioneered a pull over a push system, making product more nimbly on demand rather than to fill some estimated future plan of what demand might be, but the chain of events was still rather Newtonian. Linear. Simple.

Now, courtesy of information technologies – not least the Internet and the Web – organisations have the potential to navigate complexity, and part of that response is decentralisation.

Last century we saw airlines such as Delta and logistics firms like Fedex pioneer the hub and spoke system. Computing played with the idea for a while, calling it a star network, before recognising the superiority of further decentralisation … what airlines now refer to as point to point. You prefer point to point right? Well in IT terms we call this predominantly distributed network the Internet, and it's sort of a big thing!

A decentralised and quite possibly a distributed architecture is the future of the manufacturing supply chain too as the sector is attracted to the improved responsiveness and resilience of the topology. Amazon excels at hub and spoke but is advancing beyond this rapidly as it seeks, effectively, to be pervasive. And for the ultimate distributed manufacture, I refer you to Thingiverse and YouMagine.

The edge in C20th manufacturing was efficiency. Now the resilient and responsive trumps the merely efficient.

The Economist front cover, 31 Oct 2015Of course I can't talk to decentralisation without mentioning the blockchain. It even made the front cover of The Economist recently.

Until just a few years ago we could create an incorruptible centralised database and a corruptible decentralised database, but now we can have one incorruptible, globally distributed ledger.

It's quite tricky to get your head round without diving into its cryptographic underpinnings and even The Economist headline, "The trust machine", doesn't quite get it right ... the blockchain actually renders trust trustless.

In fact the blockchain may erode the very transaction costs Coase originally identified to explain the very existence of the firm, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.


I use this term contentiously. I mean a decline in the pro rata output of manufacturing, but not necessarily a decline in its value when we take into account the stuff I've already covered. Whose value that is of course is up for grabs.

Interestingly, as we transition from subtractive to additive production – the realm of 3D printing and the like – we find that complexity of and variation in design does not correspond with increased complexity and cost of manufacture. This severing of the two is simply unprecedented.

As we contemplate open design, open manufacture, distributed and local and personalised manufacture, and product service systems, we may witness massive fragmentation. Or perhaps Foxconn will be ubiquitous, informationally. Time will tell.


As with all revolutions, this one is marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

On one hand we might concern ourselves with sleepwalking into some dystopian extrapolation of digital Taylorism – as we appear to be doing right now in this country in terms of Orwellian state surveillance. But on the other hand, I hope in fact that we'll co-design a brighter outcome.

Three centuries ago the term manufacturing simply meant 'to make by hand'.

Today, manufacturing is understood as centralized, large scale production using machinery.

Tomorrow, manufacture might well encompass the distributed design, development, and governance of distributed systems for distributed value creation, to enhance human dignity and meet human needs and desires, to the mutual value of all stakeholders. Easier said than done perhaps, but a distinct possibility nevertheless.

Yet when I say tomorrow, I actually mean today. As cyberpunk novelist William Gibson points out, the future is already here, it's just not yet evenly distributed. The advantage then goes to those who first grapple with such challenges and opportunities, to those who prepare to navigate the complexity.


Image credit: modelling additive manufacture, by Siemens PLM Software, by-nd.