Let’s be honest — sometimes manufacturing gets a bad rap. The industry can be seen as a behemoth — stuck in the past and slow to innovate, the victim of outsourcing and the purveyor of consumerism. Thankfully, in 2017 these stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth.

Global organizations like GE and Caterpillar are investing in new technologies and innovation methods. Startups like Local Motors and Carbon are creating their own breakthroughs from the ground up. And organizations like the US Council on Competitiveness are working to keep these innovators moving forward. The future of manufacturing is bright.

That’s why we’ve put together this list of trends to watch in 2017. If you want to learn more about the technologies fueling these trends, meet the people leading the charge, and connect with fellow leaders, join us at Exponential Manufacturing May 17–19 in Boston.

1. Innovation Is Outpacing Policy

People around the world are talking a lot about recent and impending policy changes. How will these changes impact innovation in the coming years? And how will policy keep pace?

AI and robots continue automating factories. Self-driving trucks and ships aim to automate the transportation of materials and finished products. Even biotech is beginning to offer new ways to make things. These and other emerging technologies will impact how we live, work, and trade.

Some jobs will disappear while others take their place, efficiencies will improve, entire sub-industries (shipping, for example) could be upended by unexpected technologies—and all this will happen faster than expected.

Can society keep the pace? How do we regulate innovation without suffocating progress? How do we adopt an open-minded yet ethical approach to new opportunities? Planning for the future now is how organizations and policymakers will move toward the best scenarios and avoid the worst ones.

2. The Cutting Edge Won’t Be Cutting Edge for Long

If you’re reading Singularity Hub, you’re aware of some amazing advances happening across research fields and industries.

The deep analytical powers of machine learning are transforming raw data into useful insights. Some robots can now safely interact with people and more nimbly navigate messy work environments. 3D printers are giving physical form to digital designs. And biotechnology is beginning to make living systems, such as engineered bacteria, into microscopic chemical-producing factories.

While these are incredible innovations—and more arrive every day—one could argue the greatest challenge will be anticipating, timing, and creatively implementing the latest breakthroughs into business strategies. Those who recognize which technologies will serve their organization best, lead a culture of change, and navigate rough political waters, will come out on top.

3. Data-Driven Decision-Making Gets More Intelligent

Data has always played a critical role in manufacturing. The entire industry, from sourcing to production runs to sales forecasting, has relied on data for decades. However, the amount of data is growing exponentially larger by the day. Thanks to cheap, connected, and increasingly ubiquitous sensors (the Internet of Things), companies are able to monitor more than ever before — things like machinery, deliveries, even employees.

Companies need to leverage the latest in artificial intelligence to make the most of these incredibly large and powerful data sets. For those who do adopt new tools, smart decision-making will become clearer, easier and faster.

4. Accelerated Design and Real-World Market Testing

Historically, the product creation process has been notoriously long. Market research, focus groups, R&D, short runs, testing, sourcing, long runs...the list goes on. What if you could make a part that’s exactly like the finished product, in a series of one? What if you could design, build, test, and iterate in real life, before ramping up large-scale production?

You can, and in fact, GE is.

GE’s FirstBuild program is a state-of-the-art, community-sourced lab that lies outside their main campus and is used for the rapid prototyping of new ideas. If a product proves its worth in a sample market, the design is transferred to the main campus for full production.

These are the changes that technologies like additive manufacturing and materials science are bringing to product design. When a giant like GE creates a spinoff group to act like a startup, it becomes obvious that power is being democratized, innovation times are being slashed, and long-held competitive advantages are evaporating.

5. The Automation and Democratization of Production

Like design, new technologies are cutting the time and cost required to get products to market. However, there are larger shifts happening in the overall production process as well. Robots are becoming more nimble, more versatile and smarter. Computer-guided fabrication—both additive and subtractive—is getting faster, cheaper, and more precise. Factories are becoming more efficient, while raw material waste is decreasing. All of this increases competition, making success without these technologies nearly impossible.

On the other end of the spectrum, the spread of additive manufacturing, the boom of the maker movement, and a reduction in small machinery cost are allowing individuals to build mini-factories in their homes. What was once only possible in the largest factories is now doable in your neighbor’s garage. And while some may discount the innovative potential of the non-professionals, consider the incredible amount of human capital unlocked by this change.

6. Reimagining the Global Supply Chain

One of the most difficult sectors of manufacturing is the supply chain, from sourcing raw materials around the world to delivering finished goods on time. Supply chain managers are responsible for coordinating with hundreds, if not thousands, of partners and service providers to make sure products are delivered on time, on budget, and in good condition.

While it may not be the sexiest piece of the puzzle, it’s certainly a critical one — and it’s ripe for improvement. Self-driving trucks and ships, AI-powered planning software, and localized manufacturing facilities are all converging to reshape the very nature of supply chains.

So, we’ve highlighted six trends currently impacting the global manufacturing landscape. What does it mean, though? How do we stay ahead of these shifts? How do we know which technologies will stick and which will end up as the Betamax of the year?

Some of these questions are yet unanswerable, while some gain more clarity each day. What we do know is that this is just the beginning. As technologies converge, they will continue creating ever stronger advances, thus compounding the rate of improvement.

Manufacturing leaders should incorporate ongoing, future-oriented education as part of their annual development to stay up-to-date on new breakthroughs, learn where the industry is headed, and discover how to bring these competitive advantages into their own organizations.


Ready to start your education? Join Singularity University for Exponential Manufacturing, an event that will lead 600+ manufacturing executives, entrepreneurs, and investors through an intensive 3-day program to look into these questions, connect with like-minded leaders, and prepare for success in the year to come. Prices increase April 1st. Apply here and save up to 15% with code SUHUB2017.

Singularity University empowers leaders to leverage exponential technologies to solve global grand challenges. Join us.