A new industrial era, which The Economist describes as the Third Industrial Revolution, is under way. Enormous change is in the offing. At the moment, digitisation is creating a new mindset among industrial planners.
On their computers, a designer and engineer team up to create a three-dimensional object. One of them clicks print, and in the next room – or maybe a room in another country – a 3D printer whirs. Layer by layer, the object comes into existence. Instead of ink, the printer uses plastic- or nylon-based materials. Some companies and entrepreneurs are already producing ready-to-wear shoes, special auto parts and personalised iPhone covers.
Widespread and smarter automation is another catalyst for change. The next generation of robots will be cheaper and easier to use. They will be able to work with people rather than replace them. Currently robots are isolated from people for security reasons; their unthinking motions are a safety hazard. Future robots will be tuned to serve human workers: fetch and carry parts, hold and sort items, clean up and so on.
Digitisation also has an impact on training. Students can try to improve their evolving skills in virtual environments while having access to all relevant information at the push of a button. The rise of digitisation paves the way for complex simulations. Products designed and tested on computers will enjoy reduced development costs. Inexpensive prototypes produced by additive manufacturing will encourage creative and daring solutions.
Experts predict that traditional manufacturing and mass production, in a hybrid mix with new technologies, will continue for many years, especially in big companies that produce large volumes. Many small and medium-sized firms will jump on new possibilities as the cost of producing complicated articles in small numbers decreases.
Although the revolution has begun, it is unclear exactly where we now stand. Quantum leaps are conceivable as bio- and nanotechnology mature. The Third Revolution may include batteries made from viruses and superstructures from paper-thin sheets of metal.