Three technologies at the tipping point

A tipping point is rare and exciting.  Something that has functioned in a particular way for a long time is incrementally affected by factors that build steadily until suddenly they transform the way things are done.  The Industrial Revolution was such a tipping point.  The computer age was tipped by the PC.  Now, industry is being impacted by three major technologies – cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing.
Each has evolved methodically and is now becoming viable thanks to the steady advance of computing power. 
Monitoring a factory in real-time is ideal.  It allows all stakeholders in the supply chain to have up-to-date insight into orders, conditions and resources.  For decades information wasn’t shared between multiple partners securely and effectively.  The cloud has changed all that.  Connecting trading partners in the cloud allows companies to share manufacturing intelligence instantly and easily.  Data residing in one stream for everybody to share and consult on confers operational advantages:
1. Reading the market – real-time customer demand data can trigger a boost in production and smarter movement of inventory. Then big data analytics can determine which factory and warehouse can best fulfill the order
2. Co-ordination – cloud centralises information.  Instead of having to pass information between partners it is available for all to view so partners can co-ordinate better.  Communication is more accurate – chunks of data don’t get lost – and faster. Changes in the cloud get updated in real-time. 
It shouldn’t be necessary to rely on manual processes, or the exchanging of information on spreadsheets between supply chain and trading partners. A cloud network of machines, factories, warehouses, and transportation, sharing information continually through the production lifecycle advances the progression of the smart factory.
The Internet of Things
First, people and businesses became connected to the internet. Then cloud networks connected them to each other.  Now the race is on to connect ‘things’ in the supply chain. Those ‘things’ include components, machines, products, packaging, smart chips, sensors, temperature readers, shipping containers, shelves and bins,  bar codes and the list goes on.  
Connecting things is the first step, the real potential of the IoT is in the data. Not just device-specific information but performance data, collected from all the machines in a factory, and all the factories across the world.  Analysis of this data gives businesses insight into, for example operational efficiency, unplanned downtime and critical decision points.  The interesting thing about the IoT is analysis from this big data can feed back into machines to, for example optimise production. 
Such levels of monitoring creates huge potential. Sales volumes understood beyond the retail outlet; delivery schedules seen by other stakeholders including logistics providers and manufacturing progress known beyond the plant. A big data layer weaving together all connected things in the supply chain brings the true value of the IoT.
3D printing
3D printing, or in a larger sense, additive manufacturing, is causing quite a stir with its science-fiction quality of delivering a fully-formed object from a design and raw materials. The commercial opportunities are promising – a recent report from MarketsandMarkets reported in Digital Journal suggests the market could grow 23% annually 2013 to 2020, at which point it is projected to reach $8.41bn.
With the potential for businesses and consumers to create products on-site, 3D printing has the potential to shake up supply chains and reshape production.
It too will benefit from real time big data and analytics.  Rapid prototyping, on-demand manufacturing, and sudden order changes will be possible with a few clicks once 3D printing becomes a fixture of smart factories.  This will revolutionise the speed and customisation of production.  But on top of that, it will also change business models.  As 3D printing costs get lower, they will become more affordable to small firms and individuals.  Manufacturing by “crowdsourcing” will be possible.  Freelance manufacturing will be the next great economic frontier, opening up new business models based more granularly on production time and usage, instead of the flat rates that exist today.
A tipping point is inevitable.  Once something ‘tips’ there’s no going back.  But often this is a good thing, especially when it comes to technology.  In the case of manufacturing, the industry has awaited a revolution since the one that gave birth to it.  With the cloud, the IoT and 3D printing we can see a revolution that is well-suited to handle the speed, efficiency, and sustainability requirements of manufacturing and production in the 21st century. 
Boris Felgendreher is director of marketing EMEA at GT Nexus, the world’s largest cloud-based business network for global trade and supply chain management. 

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