Expert Dicussion: Future of Production – the New Industrial Revolution and the Untapped Potential

Paul Beecher, World Economic Forum, Geneva

We are talking today with Paul Beecher from the World Economic Forum.

We will be talking about trends in production, how new technologies are shaping the world, who the key stakeholders are, and how policy can be used to aid less developed countries grow.

Paul has been researching policy and manufacturing, first at the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, and now at the World Economic Forum in Geneva. Paul was recently a project lead for the “Shaping the Future of Production” System Initiative.

Paul has co-authored a white paper on the topic: “Technology and Innovation for the Future of Production: Accelerating Value Creation”, and for even further reading, you can visit his blog post “How Technology Pioneers are shaping the future of production”.

For further information see:

Shaping the Future of Production
Technology and Innovation for the Future of Production: Accelerating Value Creation
How Technology Pioneers are shaping the future of production


Paul, you’ve been working with the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge and the World Economic Forum so could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into this?

Well, I started off as a research engineer back in the early 2000’s, mostly in nanoscience. Researching novel nanomaterials for electronics, be it metal nanocrystals, carbon nanotubes, organic semiconductors, inorganic semiconducting nanomaterials, graphene, etc. And I suppose a time came when I had an interest in having a broader purview.

I was interested in how strategic decisions get made, I was interested in this notion that in, advanced western economies especially, the knowledge economy is very important, and that led to my current role here in Geneva with the World Economic Forum where there is an initiative called Shaping the Future of Production and I’ve been working on that since late 2016. And we take quite a broad view on what production means within that effort.

So you’ve basically been looking at policy from a higher level and tried to understand the global themes…

Yes, exactly, and the initiative now has more than 26 countries that account for, I think, something on the order of 80-85% of world manufacturing output. So the idea, the ethos here is that we try to get the views of multiple stakeholders, the people that look at this through different lenses – CEOs, ministers, union leaders, academics and so on – and typically try to incubate public-private efforts to solve the challenges of today and prepare the ground for the future.

What do you think are the challenges today? What are people trying to solve at the moment?

I would say the impact of technology in all its forms – there is an impact on business, there’s a societal impact, and then there’s also implications for the environment. So we try and take a view across those three main pillars.

We have projects on technology and innovation, one on what we call the future production workforce which deals with skills challenges looking ahead over the next few decades, and also accelerating sustainable production. How can we get production worldwide to align with UN Sustainable Development Goals?

UN Sustainable Development Goals,

So in your blog you were talking about production, and you have quite a specific definition for it, how would you explain it?

Well, as I said, we take a very broad view of what production is. A full value chain approach. So that includes all the way back to initial design, the sourcing of materials, then onto the shop floor, then through the supply chain all the way to the end user, and then there’s end of life issues to consider. So everything that comes under that umbrella is something that we regard as being relevant to production. And as such we have quite a diverse group of companies and organisations that engage with us.

And are there any global trends you’ve identified within that field, or production in general?

Yes, I think there are a few things we can say across those main pillars. I think what you find is that technology is heavily impacting business. I think it’s almost becoming an unavoidable, existential requirement for companies to embrace technology these days. And one of the challenges around that is capturing value from new technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, internet of things, additive manufacturing. How are these technologies coming together? Is there potential in using them in combination to obtain greater value capture? So these are the questions we are trying to tease out.

What you often find is that there are different sectors have embraced technologies at different rates and within each sector you will often have champion companies, companies that are sort of in the middle of the road, and then, for want of a better word, follower, laggard companies. And from a policy perspective you want to raise everybody up, as it were, especially SME’s who might not have the resources, whether it is human resources, or the capital to invest in and take advantage of these technologies. There’s a lot of support required to lift everybody up. So that’s one of the things we’re looking at.

Then there’s the impact on what’s happening not just on the shop floor but across the value chain, and what we’re observing from the employment point of view is that I don’t think we can necessarily predict the future in terms of whether there is going to be net job gains or losses, but I think but it is fair to say that some segments in the value chain will contract and others will expand. The eventual picture may not be a clear one, certain tasks will be fully automated, partially automated, etc., but overall it will entail requirement for other kinds of skills. So that’s not a settled picture and it’s one of the things we’re also very keen on investigating further.

They have said that technology has actually increased the amount of jobs than gotten rid of them…

Exactly. Every previous industrial revolution, going back 200 years, has in the long run created more employment and better employment. But then there is contemporary debate about whether this time it’s different.

“Every previous industrial revolution… has in the long run created more employment and better employment.”

Why would it be different?

That’s a very good question. I think maybe people feel like this revolution, these technologies that are coming on stream now, have the potential to make more people redundant. I don’t know, and nobody fully knows yet. In my work I encounter scepticism, pessimism, optimism, and every other kind of viewpoint, so it’s something we’re still trying to figure out.

So coming back to AI. They do say it will change the world more than the original industrial revolution, I mean I don’t know if you agree with this, but how do you think it will affect production?

I think it’s already affecting production significantly.

I think it’s probably the technology we have on our radar above all others. I think computing power’s reached a certain level that is enabling lots of other developments to emerge from it, and it’s getting more difficult to keep pace.

I think there is a sense of untapped potential at the moment, that there is so much data already being generated that companies don’t know how to use. The figure could be as low as one or two percent. So it’s almost as we’ve reached so far but we’re lacking in certain capabilities to fully capture the value.

I think there could be quite a profound change over the next fifteen to twenty years. And I think the companies that thrive will be those that learn how to take advantage and how to make sense of the data they generate, whether that’s on the shop floor or whether it’s in their consumer relations or whether it’s elsewhere in the value chain. The companies that get a handle on that will be the ones that will prosper more.

So I think it’s significant in the sense that I think it’s an unavoidable change, and it’s an unavoidable challenge for businesses large and small.

“The companies that thrive will be those that learn how to take advantage and how to make sense of the data they generate.”

And which businesses, or which industries, do you think are currently leading this, or are most advanced?

Often when you’re dealing with a high value added product, I think automotive has embraced robotics quite a lot. I think their production lines are very sophisticated now and I think they tend to be at the forefront.

At the other end of the scale you might have a sector such as textiles, and we deal with countries that have significant textile industries. Here there can be an ambivalence about technology, because in these countries they see that this sector provides a lot of employment, maybe not very good employment, but it’s employment, and they’re sometimes reluctant to fully embrace technology for fear of creating a disgruntled population. And of course clothing is less sophisticated than a car. So you get this range of adoption. But I think the trend in all sectors is that it’s becoming more and more ubiquitous.

And how is this actually changing policy? I mean can you give as a concrete example of something that would change on the policy side?

I think on the policy side, going back to the issue of ASEAN, these countries fear the so called middle income trap. It’s one of these issues that development economists, who we work with, debate over. Is leap-frogging something that can be viably done? Can you jump from lower levels of development to higher levels of economic development by embracing technology? To do so will will likely involve huge upskilling.

Do we have any examples? Has that happened?

The classic example is mobile communications in some parts of the world that would traditionally have had limited landline communications technology, and in some cases never invested, because they jumped straight to mobile phones.

The challenge with this so called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the amount of data generated in it, is that it requires significantly greater investment than mobile communication because the volume of data requires optical fibres, significant infrastructural investments, and so on. And that capital requirement is a challenge for countries that are trying to promote themselves to higher levels of development, and create an infrastructure and a platform for their companies to really take advantage of these new technologies. So that’s one of the debates that we’re having, and I think also on the issue of infrastructure, one of the other challenges is to think about not just the next five years but the next 50-100 years.

“Can you jump from lower levels of development to higher levels of economic development by embracing technology?”

This comes back to the sustainability question as well, that the investment needs to be smart from that perspective as well. The work we do in sustainability is to do with demonstrating how technologies can be beneficial for supporting the environment, and we’re creating a policy toolkit to support this. Not descriptive as such, but informing the policy perspective to help meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and showing how technology in production can support that.

We have reviewed several sectors now, including food and beverage, textiles, electronics and automotive. And we have a further project focused on policy, what we term readiness for the future production and that is where we have analysed countries across many economic drivers, and looked at their institutions, and tried to determine how ready they are for the future of production. Again, not prescriptive, but a set of sort of policy tools that may be adotped according to the destination a country wants to reach, mindful that not every country aspires to being a high value added leading production nation.

At the moment we are creating what a so called Transition Framework that any country can look at and maybe think, okay, we’ve got an educated workforce but we don’t have a history of being a strong technological nation, what can we do if we wanted more high value manufacturing, what would we need to do, etc. etc.?

So basically we can use policy as a guideline or something to help us get somewhere rather than you know something to restrict us.

Exactly, that’s how we view it. We’ve already published white papers across each of these topics and they’re on our website. Those were published for this year’s Annual Meeting in January, and we’re already preparing publication of the latest findings for the next Annual Meeting in January.

Okay brilliant, that sounds all very exciting. So where do you see this all heading, I mean we’ve kind of been talking about it already but what’s the next big disruptor in your mind?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I think the question of sustainability in all its forms is the long term aspiration. So it’s about finding solutions and there’s no one silver bullet, but rather many actions required to sustainably live within planetary boundaries. But also sustainability from societal and economic standpoints, acknowledging the myriad contexts that exist in different countries and different sectors, that’s ultimately what we need to work towards. I think that involves strong levels of good employment.

Production, including manufacturing, is responsible for a lot of natural resource use, a lot of carbon emissions, etc., so there is sort of an onus to come up with a greener way of making things. From the economic standpoint, one of its stats that I perhaps should have mentioned earlier is that there is only at best about 30% of the companies that are really taking advantage of the technologies that are out there. A lot of companies are trapped in so called pilot purgatory where they try something as a pilot but never really go through with overhauling their operations, or else not try at all for whatever reason.

So it’s partly about trying to encourage greater embrace of technology, and I think largely speaking we are advocates, because it opens up the possibility of new product opportunities. That it allows us to tackleproblems that were not solvable before, while acknowledging there’s potential for unintended consequences as well, and trying to anticipate and mitigate those.

“Only at best about 30% of the companies that are really taking advantage of the technologies that are out there. A lot of companies are trapped in so called pilot purgatory…”

That’s a great way to think about it.

Returning to your question about the next big disruptor, I’m a bit reluctant to use the word disruptor, but I think there are incremental solutions out there, and some of them reveal considerable promise.

Over the last few years, we’ve tried to come up with what we call a Vision for the Future of Production, something that all of these different people that we work with can agree on.

We hear things that are kind of, I don’t know if the word is intimidating, but fairly daunting, such as that industry requirements are changing faster than the length of a college degree. How do you design education such that when you come out of college, you have an essential base of core skills, but then there’s also this notion that soft skills are going to become more important for technical people.

There are things like standardisation that are becoming more important, especially when you’ve got a lot of cross border data, so when you have that, when you work across jurisdictions, that’s where the soft skills come in when you have to work with a team from another company, from another country in another culture. For example, one of the challenges about additive manufacturing, given that you can produce a product anywhere, is that it brings up notions of IP and ownership. They can be a bit knotty to disentangle.

So standardisation is something that we’re probably going to become more involved in because we’re one of those organisations that do talk to people from around the world. Harmonisation of standards can be hard to get towards, it entails a lot of work and a lot of trust. One of the other things you also mentioned is this so called reshoring phenomenon, and it’s linked to this notion of labour arbitrage.

What’s that?

Labour arbitrage is to do with low wage countries that are often happy to stay as low wage countries, and I kind of talked a little bit about that earlier. Some experts think that there might only be a ten year window where they can continue to stay on that course.

You have this idea that for the consumer, products become more personalised and customised, and it might eventually become cost effective to reshore production in so called high value countries.

That is not an entirely settled consensus. Some of the people researching this think that we’re not really there yet, but I think it’s something that could happen. And that is a challenge for an emerging economy, you know, if they lose those external markets, what do they then do to lift themselves? So this is an example of the big policy conundrums for the years ahead.

Also, one of the interesting stats about production is that two third of R&D investment in a country is focused on manufacturing in one way or another. So the making of things is where most of research and development spend is directed.

Okay interesting, and that’s an average across the world?

Yes, and that’s repeated in many countries in various geographies at various stages of development. It’s one of the things that makes this topic so fascinating..

Okay brilliant, well thank you very much Paul.