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The New Industrial Revolution Explained
The New Industrial Revolution Explained

Putting the New Industrial Revolution in Context

Everyone is talking about the “manufacturing renaissance" occurring in the U.S. To get a broader view — both geographically and historically — we conducted a virtual interview with U.K.-based Peter Marsh, author of The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production.

Q: You say we're in the middle of the 5th industrial revolution, following four other big periods of change in manufacturing over the past 200 years. How is this one different?

A: The 5th industrial revolution is the first of the revolutions to have an important effect on most of the world. (Download slides from a recent talk for further explanation) The participants in the other revolutions were limited to a fairly small group of nations, i.e. 'the west'. The 5th industrial revolution provides many opportunities for manufacturers in many countries. Hence it links in with the idea of a “manufacturing renaissance" in many parts of the world, including the USA.

Q. Who or what is driving this revolution?

It is a confluence of a number of individual phenomena involving manufacturing:

  • The move towards greater tailoring or customisation of factory-made items.
  • Heightened role of different combinations of technologies in influencing products or manufacturing processes.
  • Greater opportunities for global influence by small “niche producers" — companies specialising in very narrow areas of manufactured products or manufacturing services.
  • Growth of “networked manufacturing" or globally spread supply chains and information pathways; opportunities for clusters of like-minded businesses in specific locations to share ideas, labour, suppliers, etc.
  • Environmentally connected manufacturing, or use of factory-made products to alleviate environmental pressures.
  • Increased importance of China as a place for making and selling manufactured products.

There are many companies I consider to be on the forefront of the revolution. Among them are fairly large companies such as Trumpf of Germany, Nidec of Japan, Caterpillar of USA, and Essilor of France. There also are many small businesses on the forefront of these trends. A good example is AES SEAL of the UK. (Download slides from a recent talk for further explanation)

Q: What about the contribution of individual technologies such as advanced robotics and 3D printing?

A: Advanced robotics are an example of what I mention in the list of phenomena above as a combination of technologies or 'blended' technology. They require many different clever technologies mixed together, such as software, sensors, lightweight materials, small motors, miniaturised components, and automation systems.

3D printing is very much the same. To make and use a good 3D printer, you need a lot of technologies, high level CAD software, design engineering skills, lightweight materials, knowledge of particle chemistry, mechanical engineering expertise, material flow dynamics skills, etc. 3D printing also gives the opportunity for more customised, precision, and niche manufacturing. This also fits in with helping to make environmental consequences of manufacturing less damaging. Thus it fits in with several of the trends of the 5th industrial revolution.

Q. What's your position on the role of government to accelerate manufacturing growth — specifically locally and (in the U.S.) at the state or national level?

A: Governments should educate themselves about what's going on, and they should adopt the right sort of policy programs, e.g. to raise awareness to the possibilities among young students making career choices, finance people, and industrialists alike. Also increase projects to train people in the appropriate technology and management disciplines, and do more to make it easier for existing and new companies to take on the new ideas.

Q. You wrote about robotics technology in two books published in the 1980s. In the years since, have we had the scale of innovation or progress you expected?

A: There was quite a slow advance in tech progress with robots in the years after I wrote the books. But the tech progress has really accelerated in the past few years. Just look at the progress made by companies such as Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics and a series of companies in places such as Korea and Japan. In the 80s, I didn't really think about how quickly progress would be made. And to be honest I've not thought about this much since then. But you could argue that the recent advances have come about as a result of the 5th industrial revolution having an impact in this specific part of manufacturing technology.

Q. How sustainable is the New Industrial Revolution in the long term? Are U.S. companies on the right path?

A: The key is to have a strong community of companies, big and small, old established and new, which are pursuing strategies linked to the ideas behind the “new industrial revolution." I just spent a few days in Detroit, where I believe you can see a lot of companies that are pursuing the right strategies. That's even if they don't subscribe to any ideas about the new industrial revolution. They are just doing the right things because it makes sense. I've also come across a large number of companies in the UK that fit in with the trends.

About Peter Marsh

Author A Peter Marsh spent 30 years as a journalist at the Financial Times, including as Manufacturing Editor. He also covered technology, economics and the chemicals industry. Peter has a degree in chemistry from the University of Nottingham. His other books are The Silicon Chip Book, The Robot Age, and The Space Business. Before working at the FT, Peter was employed as a journalist at the Luton Evening Post, Building Design magazine, and New Scientist. For more,