There is a new industrial revolution taking place all around us, transforming the way we make things and changing what our products can do. Technological advances are poised to accelerate productivity growth and deliver substantial economic benefits. These advances will redefine the competitive landscape and improve our everyday lives through momentous changes in sectors like health care, energy, and transportation.
The transformation that is occurring is the Future of Work. Three major forces are converging to change global industry:
- The meshing of the physical and digital worlds
- The emergence of new design and production techniques and new materials
- The shifting role that human beings are playing in the production process.
The Industrial Internet: The rapid decline in the cost of electronic sensors and of storing and processing data allows us to apply sophisticated analytics to massive amounts of information, gaining new insights that translate into greater efficiencies. Machines like gas turbines, jet engines, locomotives, and medical devices are becoming self-aware, predictive, reactive, and social; they are able to communicate seamlessly with each other and with us. The Industrial Internet allows us to fix things before they break, reduce waste, and optimize the performance of individual machines and entire systems like hospitals, power grids, and fleets of airplanes or trains.
Advanced Manufacturing: New production techniques like 3D printing allow us to develop completely new parts and products, with new physical properties. We can now make stronger and lighter components for jet engines with printed parts. These revolutionary techniques give us more flexibility to create prototypes faster and at lower costs, accelerating the cycle of design, prototyping, and production. Advanced manufacturing digitally links design, product engineering, manufacturing, and supply and distribution networks in one cohesive, intelligent system: the Brilliant Factory. This new factory allows real-time adjustments to the production process and to supply and distribution logistics. Advanced manufacturing will accelerate the shift toward distributed production and mass-customization.
The Global Brain: Technology continues to unburden us of hard and repetitive tasks, extending the range of activities that machines can perform better than us. Automation can have painful short-term costs, as some jobs are displaced and some skills are rendered obsolete, and these costs should be addressed with training and social safety-net measures. But the change taking place dramatically augments the power and value of creativity, entrepreneurship, and interpersonal abilities—areas where humans excel.
At the same time, thanks to better economic conditions and easier Internet access, millions more people are joining the Global Brain—the collective intelligence of human beings across the globe integrated by digital communication networks. Companies are realizing that open-source platforms and crowd-sourcing are two of the most effective ways to unleash the creativity and entrepreneurship potential of the Global Brain, and they are increasingly resorting to both, in a trend that will give both employers and employees greater flexibility, redefining their relationship.
The Future of Work is already underway, but we are just at the beginning of the transformation. There will be barriers to break and obstacles to overcome. We will have to invest in new technologies and adapt organizations and managerial practices. We will have to focus on making sure our education system equips students with the right skills for this fast changing economy. We will have to ensure we have a robust cybersecurity approach to protect sensitive information, intellectual property, and infrastructure. All this will require time and investment. But this wave of technological innovation—the Future of Work—will bring profound benefits to our lives.
Marco Annunziata is Chief Economist & Executive Director of Global Market Insights at GE; Stephan Biller is Chief Manufacturing Scientist at GE. Their latest report is titled, “The Future of Work.”