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Technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres of global production systems. The current pace of technological development is exerting profound changes on the way people live and work. It is impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, perhaps none more so than production, including how, what, why and where individuals produce and deliver products and services. However, amid overcharged media headlines and political and social landscapes, business and government leaders find it difficult not only to have an accurate understanding of where these technologies can create real value, but also to successfully focus on the appropriate and timely investments and policies needed to unlock that value.
Within the broader technology landscape, five technologies are transforming global production systems and unleashing a new wave of competition among producers and countries alike. Exciting advances in the internet of things, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, wearables and 3D printing are transforming what, where and how products are designed, manufactured, assembled, distributed, consumed, serviced after purchase, discarded and even reused. They affect and alter all end-to-end steps of the production process and, as a result, transform the products that consumers demand, the factory processes and footprints, and the management of global supply chains, in addition to industry pecking orders and countries’ access to global value chains.
The five technologies, in different stages of technical readiness and adoption, also come with varied levels of uncertainty about their future direction. Some, such as advanced robotics ($35 billion market) and 3D printing ($5 billion market), have a long industrial history and are on the cusp of mainstream adoption, albeit in certain geographies and industries. Others, such as artificial intelligence and enterprise wearables ($700 million market), are in a more nascent stage, but present promising use cases. For now, North America, Europe and pockets of Asia (China, Japan and South Korea) are leading in technological adoption, with the rest of the world lagging behind (see Figure 3). In 2015, North America and Europe together made up 80% of the wearables market and almost 70% of industrial 3D printing units. With the exception of wearables, today’s technologies are heavily concentrated in specific industries, with automotive, electronics and aerospace being early adopters in most cases. Technologies have not disrupted all industries in the same way and at the same time, and even within the same industry the technologies have a dramatically different impact and value proposition for specific functions.
Inevitably, the demonstrable benefits of new technologies will lead to their greater adoption, and failure to invest in them will be fatal for many firms’ long-term prospects. While the technologies are at different levels of development and adoption, the Forum identified five cross-technology tipping points that will indicate widespread adoption. Disruptive technologies shaping production assesses the readiness and adoption level of each technology, its most relevant applications in production and the key barriers to further adoption.