Industrial processes, value chains and business models are about to undergo a profound transformation, mostly due to the integration of digital technologies. States intervene in a number of ways to help industrial companies make the transition and either remain at the cutting edge or get back in the game.
Different, complementary conceptions of the industry of the future
As early as 2011, Germany put forward the concept of Industrie 4.0, based on a vision of connected factories made flexible and smart thanks to a network of machines, products and individuals. Processes can be modelled at all scales and “cyber physical” systems are optimized to provide customized products for individual clients at mass production prices. The internet of things makes it possible to track products and the way customers use them and offer totally new complementary services.
Other technologies, like additive manufacturing and various improvements to procedures and materials, make processes more effective, reduce their environmental impact, and make work less arduous.
Beyond the technological aspects, the dissemination of digital tools, along with the consideration of environmental constraints and the expectations of employees and other stakeholders, mean that companies’ organisation methods, strategies and business models need rethinking.
How different countries are accompanying the transition
Germany rapidly realized the considerable impact that the digital revolution was going to have on manufacturing, and the considerable threats to the leadership of its manufacturers specializing in production equipment. Starting from the 2000s, reflections initially looked at new consumer demands and trends, before coming up with technological solutions to respond to them.
Countries like South Korea and China, whose manufacturing base is growing fast, have ambitious plans to automate processes and move their products upmarket. Korea is currently the country with the most robots in the world (437 per industrial employee in 2013 compared to 282 in Germany and 125 in France).
Lastly, for countries that have experienced significant industrial decline, like the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the industry of the future can be a lever for resurgence and winning back markets.
The concrete types of support by public authorities reflect the diverse situations of national industries and intervention traditions. While the United States mostly finances research programmes, with a very broad vision of the industry of the future (additive manufacturing, digital integration, as well as new materials), China wants to take advantage of the digitalization of processes to modernize and accelerate an upmarket move for its manufacturing companies. Despite their differences, all of these policies revolve around three main axes: support to develop new production technologies, assistance to modernize the productive fabric, and adaptation of the training system to deal with these changes.
What can France do?
In this situation, the “Industry of the Future” programme, launched in France in 2013 by the then Minister of Industrial Renewal and reworked by Emmanuel Macron two years later, aims in particular to make up for French manufacturers’ delay in investing in their production systems. However, modernization will only have positive impacts if it is combined with a repositioning of firms. The industry of the future thus rekindles debates on the upscaling of French industry and its capacity to take advantage of digital technologies to transform its business models. In addition, the hybridization of existing technologies with new digital technologies offers interesting perspectives for French providers of solutions, ranging from major groups specializing in embedded systems and cybersecurity, to start-ups developing their business in the internet of things or big data. France will need to make better use of its assets, such as its public research excellency, by improving the quality of its interfaces with business, and its engineer training courses, to encourage more graduates to move towards SMEs.
France has an established tradition of managing major programmes and supporting the emergence of new technologies. Large French groups know how to adopt these technologies, but their dissemination in intermediate-sized enterprises and in particular SMEs is essential. The national programme aims to accompany 2,000 companies over three years by mobilizing regions and industrial federations. Nevertheless, that only represents a small portion of the industrial fabric, and we can only hope that the pioneers’ initiatives and successes will encourage others to quickly follow in their footsteps.
The main problem, however, is accompanying those who are going to find the nature of their work profoundly altered. A special note is devoted to skills management and the adaptations required in our initial, and especially continuing, training system.