07 March 2018

Are We Really Witnessing a Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Across the manufacturing world, there is much talk of us being in the middle of a ‘new industrial revolution’. We have already had three of these revolutions: the first used steam power to move us beyond human and animal power for making and moving things; the second delivered production at a mass scale; and the third brought computing and robotic capabilities to enhance production. The fourth revolution offers the promise of multiple benefits from digital connectivity throughout all our chains of production and consumption activities.  The hype around this new revolution is extraordinary, offering an anticipated US$100 trillion opportunity for both industry and society through the adoption of these digital technologies1. However, for many firms the uncertainties and noise surrounding these technologies makes firms unsure of what steps need to be taken to reap the potential benefits. A specific example may help to highlight the challenges that firms are facing. 


Within the broad range of digital industrial technologies that are at the heart of this new revolution, the example of ‘3D printing’ (or ‘additive manufacturing’) provides an insight into the type barriers need to be overcome for manufacturing firms to capture value from an emerging digital technology.


3D printing technologies – which were invented over 30 years ago – use computer-aided design software to construct 3-dimensional shapes that are built up layer by layer, creating highly complex shapes in a range of materials. This is in contrast to traditional ‘subtractive’ methods where shapes are formed by removing material. The technique removes many design restrictions and supports tool-free manufacturing, directly from digital models. Its initial use for creating rapid prototypes has been extended to the production of tooling to support conventional production process, but also the production of final parts with applications across a variety of industries. Final part production is increasingly common in aerospace (for key components within gas turbines and airframes) and medical (especially dental, hearing aids, and prosthetics).  But there are many barriers – perceived and actual – that prevent firms from adopting 3D printing more widely. A recent report2 showed the complexity of issues that need to be considered including:


  1. Materials – Gaps in understanding of material properties when using different 3D printing processes on different printers and how to ensure consistent quality of output.
  2. Design – Gaps in the availability of guides and education programmes on design for 3D printing.
  3. Skills and awareness – Lack of appropriate skilled workers across all aspects of 3D printing (design, production, materials, testing), and poor awareness among many firms of what 3D printing is and can do.
  4. Finance – Poor understanding of the full costs of adopting 3D printing, and how it compares to traditional processes – especially for smaller firms.
  5. Standards – Perceived or actual lack of standardisation of processes in general and also for specific sectors.
  6. Testing       – The absence of data libraries and standards for testing the outputs of 3D printers for diverse applications.
  7. Intellectual Property – How to balance need for openness to share knowledge with need for commercial protection to capture value from investments.


These seven points illustrate the challenges of just one digital technology within the whole catalogue of technologies that need to be implemented to make this new industrial revolution a reality. But it gets more complicated. The challenges described above consider 3D printing simply as a digital production technology within an existing factory. 3D printing also offers the potential to transform the location of manufacturing activities, which makes things even more exciting but also more challenging.


When combined with so-called re-distributed manufacturing – generally involving small-scale, localised production – 3D printing offers the prospect of on-demand, mass personalisation of products and a more flexible, cost-effective and sustainable way of making things. This could include the manufacturing of medical devices and implants in hospitals, the making of replacement parts close to the point of use (e.g. in remote mines, on container ships, in hazardous locations), and in-shop production of customised goods. While offering huge potential, 3D printing combined with re-distributed manufacturing has the capacity to be highly disruptive, requiring companies to rethink their business models and to develop new ways of creating and capturing value. But this also raises additional important questions in addition to those noted above including:


  • How will the supply of materials be affected? Can localised sources be found?
  • Are there IP and quality implications if customers make their own designs?
  • What are the economic issues? How can costs be optimised when shifting from centralised manufacturing locations to massively distributed activities?


For many counties and regions, the most critical barriers to the adoption of such potentially disruptive digital technologies may be lack of awareness of the realities of the technologies and a lack of access to appropriate skills. But what does this actually mean in practice? Again, the example of 3D printing provides a useful illustration of the issues that can be distilled down to two areas:


Firstly, what is the ‘core curriculum’ for a digital technology such as 3D printing?  There is a need to identify, document and agree standards for the core knowledge relating 3D printing. This is no trivial task, given the range of technologies that fall under the banner of 3D printing, the subdomains of knowledge that need to be considered (e.g. process technologies, materials, software, etc.) and the different levels of maturity and accessibility of the knowledge.  We have centuries of knowledge about manufacturing through casting, forming and subtractive processes for a wide range of materials, and the bulk of this knowledge is in the public domain. But 3D printing is still rapidly developing, and significant amounts of knowledge rest within companies who, for quite understandable commercial reasons, may not want to make this freely accessible.  There is also the issue of who will define and own the standards, and who will make sure that they are updated as the technologies evolve.


Secondly, when and how should 3D printing skills be learned? There needs to be consideration of the positioning of 3D printing skills development for those in full-time education, as well as those already in the workforce. Skills development needs to be structured for learning at school, college, university and through continuing professional development.


It is also interesting to consider the flipside of the issue, i.e. how education might be changed as a result of 3D printing adoption? Examples of this can already been seen in the use of 3D printing in the training of surgeons through the printing of 3D models of organs scanned from patients to improve surgical outcomes, and the adoption of 3D printers in engineering, science and design departments in universities for rapid testing, and producing low-cost lab equipment. There is also the broader potential of the adoption of 3D printing in addressing the problem of the shortfall of engineers in some countries. 3D printing is providing a route by which the younger ‘digital natives’ can connect their virtual skills with the production of real artefacts, and hence re-establish a link to manufacturing.


So, will the manufacturing world – and consequently the rest of us – benefit from the US$100 trillion opportunity enabled through the adoption of industrial digital technologies?  The example of 3D printing described above has hopefully given a flavor of some of the complex challenges that need to be overcome for just one of these technologies.  Multiply this across all the other digital technologies – sensors, robots, machine learning, data analytics etc – that need to be developed and integrated across global supply chains and you get a sense of how much needs to be done to deliver on the vision of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.  However, many nations have developed integrated plans for addressing this challenge. For example the UK has recently published its ‘Made Smarter’ report3, which maps out the steps needed to overcome the key barriers.

Thankfully much of the hype-driven noise of the past few years is lessening, and we now have the opportunity to focus on the capturing the real potential of these transformative technologies.




[2] http://am-uk.org/project/additive-manufacturing-uk-national-strategy-2018-25/

[3] http://industrialdigitalisation.org.uk/



Professor Tim Minshall

Head of the Institute for Manufacturing

Cambridge University


Post a Comment