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Industry 4.0 – Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Part II

3D printing adoption curves. Notice the uptake of personal fabrication in the last part of this decade. In my mind it will be preceded by the adoption in the retail space. Credit: 3D printing – second edition – Christopher Barnatt

On line shopping, of course, was made possible by the Internet, connecting any person in any part of the world to giant virtual shops that in turn, and seamlessly, connected the request to a variety of providers and through an ever more sophisticated value chain delivered the product to the buyer. Automated systems are playing a significant role: robots in the production plant increased efficiency and decreased cost keeping a high quality level; in the distribution chain robots fetch the desired product from long lines of shelves and bring it to a sorter that handles hundreds of thousand packages in a single day (at peak time Amazon shipped 306 boxes per second, over 3 million per day in 2016!), something that would be impossible in a retail store (not mentioning accommodating hundreds of thousand buyers in a shop!).
I rode the way of the on line shopping by “upgrading” my shop to become a “brick and click”, shoppers would come to visit me and I would help them to choose the right appliance best fitting their needs and ordered that on line for a 24 hours delivery. I made that customer “my customer” by updating its profile so that next time he would come to my shop he will be recognised as a recurring customer and I could help him even better.

In the last few years we have seen a further transformation of products, of the way they are produced and “assembled”. Most of the functionalities are now software based which in turns has pushed towards more open interfaces and has increased their sophistication. Part of this sophistication is in their capability to become aware, at different levels, of their environment, hence to take advantage of it. Software and sensors have transformed appliances into autonomous systems that can interact seamlessly with their users and with one another. The idea of a product has morphed into the one of “service”. And now, I am in the business of helping customising, even assembling, products and in the one of delivering services. Customers are flocking to my store because of this.  Yes, there are plenty of ways to do the customisation on line, basically creating your own product, but for many people it is not easy and it is surely time consuming checking the different options and evaluating them. Clearly for some this is a great fun, but for many others it is a stress. Besides, there is the issue of taking responsibility of the result. And that is where I create value.

There is a word for this: Multichannel Man. Buying a product may mean accessing several channels each one providing a piece and their integration results in the product. The sophistication, and complexity, is growing. Each channel is a system and often these independent systems are built in such a way to communicate one another to state and understand requirements and then they create their part accordingly so that in the end all parts fit nicely together.

This has started with the soft part of products, first through the publication of API (Application programming Interfaces) and ODF (Open Data Framework) then through plug-ins that work as adaptors across different parts and functionalities.

Now also the hardware is becoming more and more customisable. The use of 3D printing is a reality at the point of sale. They have become both more sophisticated and easier to use thanks to their growth into the autonomous systems family.

When a shopper enters my shop he has the possibility to look at existing products on the shelves and to “see” their variations through augmented reality. I usually provide them with a screen to view the AR although some are using their own screen, glasses, smart phones to get the AR image.

He can combine the augmented vision with his own information/data to provide the specification of the product he would like to have. Here is where I step in. I can browse several producers “capabilities” (notice, not products but capabilities!) to see a fit and then I can orchestrate the various channels for delivery. Most of the time I can use one of the products I have in the store and add to it. For the software, addition it is quite straightforward (that is if you know how to do it and that is my competitive edge) for the hardware addition I may turn to my 3D printers that will download the specs from a manufacturer and will adapt those specs to the specific needs. You might of course say that my 3D printers are just terminals but their sophistication and capability to make autonomous design choices to adapt the printing specs received by a provider to the needs of the customer makes them something different from a terminal.
They have surely become part of the production process, and they will enter in the service delivery chain. As the customer uses the product new needs may arise and some of them will be met by my 3D printer. For sure this applies to consumable parts that will require replacement. This replacement has become a smart process, since it takes into account the kind of use, and wear, and might result in a slightly different part being printed. As an example the wear on the product may require a slightly “bigger” part to be printed to compensate for the loss of material. However, this is not always feasible, some times you will have to replace also the other part or create an adaptor. All these decisions are taken by the printer itself since it has the understanding of the overall design and can take decision on the design of the component to be printed.

As a component in the manufacturing process my 3D printers are connected to various component manufacturers and provide feedback on the issues met in the integration thus enabling them to change their parts in a continuous quality improvement cycle.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. 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 Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions 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. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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