How accurately can we anticipate the future given today’s emerging technologies? Take 3-D printing. Our current model of producing goods is built around large-scale, globally linked manufacturing facilities with massive, complex lines of supply and delivery. What happens when 3-D printers overtake current models in terms of speed and cost effectiveness, allowing goods to be custom made for little cost by localized manufacturing hubs? Will we still need today’s manufacturing model?
Through the Industrial Research Institute’s foresights study — IRI2038 — several plausible scenarios of the future of R&D were explored. In one scenario, traditional manufacturing collapses under the strain placed on it by 3-D printing and heightened speed-to-market practices and is largely replaced by local manufacturing networks.
A Low End of ‘Beta Tests’
At the low end of the market, new products are churned out as beta tests, released with little prior market research. At the high end are premium products developed by specially formed R&D communities that are working on solving the big challenges of the 21st century.
The “buyer beware” model of the low-end churn arises from the convergence of three factors: e-commerce, just-in-time manufacturing bolstered by 3-D printing, and predictive algorithms for market behavior. The result is a more anticipatory model of manufacturing and new product development that quickly produces goods for small markets in order to test which products will be successful on a larger scale. All products bear a licensing agreement that makes each consumer an official beta tester of the purchased “prototype.”
To give order to the broad, scattered, and diverse line of new products churned out by these smaller networks, companies begin to develop hardware as a service — hardware platforms similar to today’s smartphone app markets. Such platforms may also come with crowd-sourced ratings systems for products linked to the hardware. A documentation network will help service this market with product reviews, FAQs, easter eggs, and hacks, dividing the new product landscape between producers and support services.
Reduced product lifecycles and development costs bring an end to current project portfolio methods and the speed of new product delivery becomes essential as IP laws dissolve. Launching beta products and letting natural selection in the marketplace identify winners becomes more accurate and cost effective for companies.
A High End Serviced by R&D Communities
But not everyone is interested in this low end product churn. R&D communities form both inside and outside traditional companies to pursue solutions to some of the greater challenges facing humanity such as planetary warming, rising carbon dioxide levels, and resource scarcity. The PR boost such research generates leads to greater investment in their capabilities.
One side effect of this division between high- and low-end products is the rise of social-value metrics as the key measure for evaluating purchases of new products. Market behavior ceases to be driven solely by concerns about cost and effectiveness of the product. When every small-scale, 3-D printing business can churn out new products, the value an organizations will be differentiated by the value they add to the quality of life of target communities or society as a whole.
Much of traditional large-scale manufacturing may cease to exist. Small, agile manufacturers will link with large R&D organizations in order to be associated with the social reputation they develop. And the corporation of the future will resemble a colony of like-minded researchers bounded by a common social purpose and protective of its expertise instead of its intellectual property.