Characterizing the Future of Manufacturing over the Next Nine Years

Originally titled 'The Next Nine Years'

The hopes and dreams we have today provide a good clue for what tomorrow might be like.

Much of this anniversary issue dwells on the past to celebrate accomplishments and commemorate progress. It also affirms an implicit commitment to stay the course as we move forward. Now, let us turn our thinking to the future. Although we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it. Perhaps we can say a few useful things about what might happen in the nine or 10 years ahead (a reasonable window for speculation). 

Dream big and boldly. Most of our casual thinking about the future begins with impulses such as “I wish I had,” “I would like to,” and “If only I could” as our minds quickly picture the wish granted, the want fulfilled or power granted. The same urge can be applied more rigorously to how we envision the future for manufacturing. We should think about the constraints that currently are holding us back and imagine our situation if those constraints were eased or removed entirely. What would we ask for first or want the most?

Technology certainly moves in this direction (as amply illustrated in the series of retrospective articles in this issue). We can expect machines to become more capable, more reliable and more flexible. They will become bigger or smaller as the advantage of size becomes apparent. Likewise, our cutting tools, computer systems, measurement devices and so on, will improve, too. These changes may seem incremental at first, but magnifying their implications will lead to insights. What opportunities will open? How can we exploit these advances?

Expect the unexpected. When wishful thinking becomes imaginative thinking, it often leads to profoundly inventive thinking. This inventiveness is a powerful force that shapes manufacturing. Just as cutting processes using high-powered forms of light, high-pressure streams of water and highly controlled sparks of electrical energy were once unthought of, equally amazing developments lie ahead. Currently, processes that build up rather than remove material are dramatically changing the manufacturing landscape. What forces are yet to be harnessed? Perhaps we will learn to manipulate magnetism or gravity to arrange particles into objects with properties of an astounding nature.

Consider consequences. We all know that our wishes and daydreams, however compelling, could have dire consequences if they did come true. The same holds for our visions of the factory of the future. We are wise to watch for unintended results or negative reactions to seeming benefits. Conflicts surely will arise, as we see today in the crises over data security and personal privacy. 

Entertain contrarian thinking. People are fickle. Consumer preferences can flip overnight. For example, the materialistic impulse to acquire a lot of stuff already seems to be giving way to an interest in fewer, more personalized or handcrafted goods. Being rooted in a community may outweigh upward mobility as many eschew high-paying jobs. Walkable neighborhoods hosting a cluster of micro-factories could defy suburban sprawl and the expansive industrial park. Society may pull back from a digital connectedness that it deems intrusive and divisive. In our industry, I doubt these concerns will diminish the move to data-driven manufacturing, but they may make it a bumpy ride.

Be optimistic. Perhaps our most useful way to ponder the future begins with the thought “I hope.” These words inspire a commitment to renewal and a positive direction. Hope never sneers at change, even when it appears massively disruptive. Hope simply smiles back.