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A few thoughts on the future of manufacturing

I’m part of a fascinating group looking at the future of manufacturing, including bosses of Mclaren, Nissan, GE, ARM, Siemens, Mulberry and others. Seen in the long view, UK manufacturing is an odd mix of triumph and disappointment.

Many firms have bounced back remarkably, and remain at the global forefront. The UK has addressed some of its longstanding weaknesses such as the links between education and industry (indeed the World Economic Forum ranks the UK number two (after Switzerland) on engagement of academia in industry, and 45% of PhDs have a commercial end user).  

But UK exports have failed to take advantage of the falling pound, and it's highly likely that manufacturing's share of GDP will fall (and its share of jobs even more) because of the combination of relative price effects, changing structures of demand and trade.

So what might we expect in the future?

The Foresight exercise will generate a huge amount of useful material: here are just a few personal observations:

Trends - more automation but also more handmade

The first is that there are contradictory trends. The big one is undoubtedly towards both much more automation - factories made up of swarms of robots, and controlled by vast NASA type control rooms. But there are some countertrends towards more handmade, high value products in fashion, furniture and other fields.

Diversifying business models

A second is that more diverse business models are emerging. For example, separating out R&D, conception and design from fabrication; or thinking about value from the user end not the producer - a theme of ecological thinking - so that what is delivered is not a product but rather mobility or warmth.

Regulation as a tool

A third is that these business models will interact with regulation in some fields - the new tools of the Internet of Things being an obvious example, with driverless cars at the forefront. ;So getting the regulation right could become an important source of comparative advantage.

Maintenance more than production?

A fourth related point is the rising importance of maintenance relative to production, a theme I explore in some detail in my book The Locust and the BeeMaintenance of bodies, buildings, land and machines looks set to rise once again as a share of GDP and occupations.

From subtraction to addition

Perhaps the most striking trend is the move from subtraction to addition. In the past manufacturing was all subtraction - taking away useful stuff from raw materials of iron ore or plastic, and in the process generating huge quantities of waste.

Increasingly the manufacturing models are additive, adding layer after layer of materials to create an item (with 3D printing as just one expression of a much wider trend). The optimists also hope that manufacturing may move from being polluting to cleansing (I remember visiting a Swiss pharma plant years ago which claimed that its outflows provided cleaner water than its inflows). Together these point to a much less wasteful future economy - and one that becomes truly circular.

In most scenarios there won't be that many jobs. But those that remain could be even more fascinating and demanding, as much about advanced computing as physics or engineering.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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