The 3rd Industrial Revolution – May 15, 2012

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As students of economics are well aware, the Industrial Revolution which The Economist in an important recent commentary has dubbed “the first industrial revolution” began in late 18th century Britain. With the invention of the Spinning Jenny and the Arkwright Frame, the textile industry was brought under the rubric of a single cotton mill.  The factory age was born.  The second industrial revolution according to The Economist occurred in the early 20th century when Henry Ford mastered the moving assembly line and thereby ushered in the age of mass production.

Now this newspaper of record informs us that a third revolution is underway: manufacturing is going digital.  “A number of remarkable technologies are converging: clever software, novel materials, more dexterous robots, new processes (notably three-dimensional printing), and a whole range of web-based services”.  Whereas Ford needed heaps of capital to build his colossal factory, “his modern equivalent can start with little besides a laptop and a hunger to invent”.  The third industrial revolution will affect not only how things are made but where.  The Boston Consulting Group reckons that in areas such a transport, computers, fabricated metals, and machinery 10-30% of the goods that America now imports from China could be made at home by 2020, boosting American output by $20 billion- 55 billion a year.

The Economist is probably right in its prognosis. The word “revolution” is probably not misplaced. The coming years are likely to see major changes in digitized manufacturing.  For instance a new vehicle today is likely to be drawn up as a three-dimensional digital prototype long before it is actually built.  “It can be walked around, sat in, test-driven in a simulator, taken apart and placed in a virtual factory to work out how to build it”.

Another example can be seen in the changes that are coming in the manufacture of prescription drugs.  Making prescription drugs for the most part is an “old fashioned batch-making process”.  But in a laboratory in Boston we are informed by The Economist, another way of making drugs is being developed.  Raw materials are put into one end of a machine full of tubes, cogs, belts, and electronics and pills pop out of the other end.  This pilot production line, a joint venture between MIT and Novartis is pioneering a continuous manufacturing process for the pharmaceutical industry.  Commercial replication on a large scale is estimated to be 5 to 10 years away.

The newspaper envisages a dramatically changed manufacturing architecture where “legions of entrepreneurs and tinkerers swap designs online turn them into products at home and market them globally from garage”.  The above account reinforces the contention that the march of progress in human affairs is unstoppable.

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