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Paul T Kidd's Manufacturing 2020 Pages

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Manufacturing 2020 Comments

Manufacturing 2020 Comments


It is reassuring to predict the future. The only problem is, one cannot predict the future, at least not with very much accuracy. This fact however has not stopped people from trying. But if one cannot predict the future any great accuracy why do they bother? The answer it seems that everyone feels better for it.

Back in 1995 The Foresight Programme published its first attempt at gazing into manufacturing industry's future 20 years hence, in the year 2015. The orientation of the report was very much centred on business processes - not surprising really given that at the time business process re-engineering was the fad of the day. The problem is that in 2015 any successful firm would be taking the business process approach as the norm. What we all would like to know is, what in 2015 will be the flavour of the day? Foresight should not be about reporting on current issues and then extrapolating.

On the technology side the 1995 report did not really provide much help. How could it? Some of the technologies that will be in use in 2015 probably have not yet been invented! Nevertheless, this fact did not stop the Foresight Panel trying to make predictions. Did they do a good job? Well, let us take IT as an example. IT gets a mention, along with networks and communication technologies, of course. But look for Internet, World Wide Web, e-business and e-commerce and you will look in vane.

Does this matter. Well yes it does. Firstly, at the time the Foresight Panel were working on this report, the Internet was already becoming big news in the USA - how did they miss this? Second, one might say that they mentioned networks and the Internet is a network. But the point about the Internet is that it is a very cheap network that is easy to connect to. These are really big and important points - factors which are driving the uptake of a wired world and leading to changes in business models, opening up new opportunities, and so on. These things that were not foreseen in the 1995 Foresight report. QED.

So did the Foresight Panel in 2000 make a better job? It seems not, although they did avoid making predictions, or so it seems. The report did of course mention perennial problems and wish lists. The need for a skilled and flexible workforce is raised (yet again!). But this is an on-going problem, and it does not take a Foresight Panel or study to point out the continuing need to address education and training. Logistical infrastructure also gets a mention. But the problems of ageing and over stretched logistical infrastructure are already with us as any one who uses the railways and the road networks will testify.

Environment, as one would expect, also gets a mention. But its all about improved efficiency and reduced emissions, the assumption being that current mass consumption based business models will still be viable in 2020. Mass customisation, another old bone that people keep gnawing away at, is also mentioned. But no mention here of where mass customisation might actually be useful or worthwhile or even worth paying extra for. Of course, if one's interpretation of mass customisation is actually assemble-to-order or batch sizes of one in mass production industries, then that is a different story. This is, however, is current issue, subject no doubt to further developments and improvements over the coming years. Hardly radical stuff though.

In 1970 it is highly likely that if Foresight Panel had published a report, it would have foreseen manufacturing in 1990 as a world of mass production. Lean production would not have even got a mention. Nor would new markets such as mobile phones, personal computers, set-top boxes and a long list of products that had not even been dreamt of at that time. This highlights the problem and futility of Foresight. Foresight methods tend to be oriented towards extrapolating current conditions and trends. This ignores one important point - innovation.

Innovation creates discontinuities and these create market opportunities. They lead to new products and markets and overturn or radically revise business models. The only serious way to deal with this situation is not to try and predict the future, but to develop the enterprise capabilities to quickly adapt to these sorts of structural changes and to strategically manage the resulting uncertainties, which can often be very significant. This sort of capability is fundamental and hard to achieve. That makes it a source of sustainable competitive advantage and hence more worthwhile that Foresight Studies.





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