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Macro changes ahead – V

EIT Manufacturing 2021 Summit: a great event to learn and share on creating the future of Manufacturing. Image credit: EIT Manufacturing

Executable Knowledge 

Yesterday I had the pleasure of giving a keynote at the EIT Manufacturing 2021 Summit Event and I focussed on the trend towards executable knowledge in machines and its impact on the work and factory. Here’s the text of my talk.


Smarter Factories, Smarter People

Over the last 300 years manufacturing has honed its processes and adopted ever more sophisticated tools becoming more and more effective. Yet it has also become a cog in a very complex landscape including supply and distribution chains, raw materials and environment, waste and energy. Any change in this landscape may have severe repercussion on manufacturing and likewise any change in manufacturing affects the landscape. 

The pandemic is showing that we are living in a connected world where global and local go hand in hand. Think at the disruption of the supply chain, at chip shortage…

Matching efficiency with flexibility is the big challenge facing manufacturing and for that we need smarter factories and smarter people.

Five years ago in 2017 the Industry Advisory Board of the Future Direction Committee of the IEEE polled hundreds of CEOs and CTOs in a variety of industries asking what they felt will be the impact of a number of technologies on their sector in 2020. The message was “each sector is going to leverage and be impacted by many technologies”.

Five years later, Spring 2021, the same questions resulted in a very similar set of answers. However, looking closely we see that the healthcare and the manufacturing sectors are seeing technology having a greater impact than expected five years ago.

According to recent analyses, over 50% of the cost in healthcare is tied to technology. In manufacturing technology is also taking a significant portion of the overall cost, although it changes widely in different sectors to the point that averaging it makes little sense.

What is also clear from this current assessment is the lower impact 5G is having at the moment and the greater than expected impact of AI and Digital Twins, both signalling the need for becoming smarter and flexible.

Looking forward at 2025 CEOs and CTOs are expecting a much bigger impact of 5G, both private and public 5G, a continuous and growing impact of AI and a growing impact of AR and VR indicating the trend towards a shift of operation to the cyberspace, again a result of a trend towards smarter manufacturing.

Tech evolution is driving the augmentation of machines and the augmentation of humans. Eventually these will merge into a human-machine symbioses.

Stepping back and looking forward we can see two trends: the augmentation of machines, becoming more effective and in the last decade smarter along with an augmentation of humans. In the diagram on the right hand side the steps of progressive machine augmentation, applying better interfaces, narrow artificial intelligence, context awareness, human machine cooperation, swarm technologies for an autonomous emerging intelligence and in the future machine awareness. On the left hand side the evolution of human augmentation, from leveraging tools to leveraging the Internet, body augmentation, including exoskeleton and ambient augmentation, using AR, on to brain augmentation by leveraging on machine knowledge and cognitive digital twins with a future possibility of biological augmentation through CRISPR like techniques. These two trends are converging in a human machine symbioses. This is not expected to happen overnight but although it will be a slow process its impacts are already in front of us.

Digital Twins have become part of the manufacturing process, generated as a fall out of computer aided design that results in a digital model of the future product, applied in the manufacturing through Computer Aided Manufacturing making use of that digital model and living through the life time of the product by receiving through embedded IoT, sensors, the real or quasi real-time status of the product. This is the progression that has brought Digital twins at stage III. This evolution has been driven by the quest for efficiency, cost reduction. 

What we are starting to see is the use of DT at stage IV as a way to augment a product, its performance, by flanking services that are delivered via the DT. It is part of the product softwarization process and this is driven by both cost efficiency and revenue increase. On the horizon the partial dematerialisation of products based on autonomous DT at stage V.

It is now several years that we have been talking about the knowledge society. Now, for the first time this knowledge society is kicking back to us paving the way for a change in the way we look at knowledge and acquire it. We are starting a transformation from knowledge to “executable” knowledge. Mind you. We have always needed executable knowledge: having knowledge stored in a library is of little use in everyday life, including manufacturing! What is needed is to have such knowledge making an impact and to translate knowledge into execution and for that we have used “brains”, skilled knowledgeable people to carry out activities. What we are starting to have today are machines that embed knowledge and can execute it. IBM in their article in 2018 “designing better machines”, and SAP have called this capability Cognitive Digital Twins and are seeing these operating in factories, taking autonomous decision by understanding the goal and being aware of the context.

These CDT are reaching out from the factory to the supply and delivery chain, interact with digital twins of product lines and products and form the knowledge landscape characterising the company.

Furthermore, we can expect them to interact, and work together with the CDT of company’s employees. These latter are growing in knowledge as they interact with other CDT and obviously as their physical twin engages in activity and continuous education.

The area of personal CDT is a brand new one that is being studied by IEEE and it is part of the general trend towards massively distributed intelligence. 

The pandemic has forced many industry to shift whatever was possibile to the cyberspace. Knowledge was already part of the cyberspace and knowledge embedded in people also shifted to the cyberspace as people operates from remote. Leveraging knowledge 1 km away is the same as leveraging knowledge from the other side of the world. This is already changing, in some companies,  the way HR will look at human resources. It is a direct fall out of the Digital Transformation. Companies that are lagging behind in the capability to leverage distributed -delocalised- knowledge, both in humans and machines are going to face an uphill competition from those that are.

We are moving towards a cooperation at knowledge level between humans and machines, co-bots, and a knowledge as a service that will also become embedded in products as a service of expert on demand.

This is part of the more general transformation of industry, and manufacturing, towards product softwarization, a transformation that impacts both the product and the way we design, manufacture and operate it, up to its end of like cycle.

The manufacturing involves humans and machines, as it always has, adding cooperation at the knowledge level, a process enriching both the knowledge of humans and the one of machines. AI and advanced interfaces based on AR and VR will play a pivotal role with Digital Twins as bridges between the physical and the cyberspace with a specific role of customising knowledge to the interacting parties. At the same time this transformation accelerates the softwarization of products, their use to deliver services.

A facilitating role in this transformation is played by the digital spaces used as shared interfaces in the ecosystem of producers and users. GAIA-X can be an important initiative in this respect. But GAIA-X will only be as good and effective/impactful as its constituency is able to guide it. In this respect I feel that EIT Manufacturing should lead in the area of GAIA-X Digital Spaces and be the one to evaluate their effectiveness.

As a final point I would like to stress that we are creating machines, ever smarter ones, and we need to be smart, actually leverage on those machines to be smarter. It is only by looking at the whole landscape in terms of symbioses that we will not face the nightmare of machines taking the upper hand. 

We are surely moving towards smarter factories, smarter because they will reach out beyond the boundary of the factory, encompassing the supply/delivery chain, following the operation and end of life of the products with a constant eye on the environment and energy sources. To accomplish this extension of factory reach we need smarter people and here again I see an important role for EIT Manufacturing to look at the broader picture and help in educating smarter people.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.