Building a Roadmap for the Future of Global Manufacturing

Conversation with Marco Taisch
Professor of Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing Systems, and Operations Management, School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
Scientific Chairman of the World Manufacturing Foundation
President at MADE, Competence Center on Industry 4.0



Tell us about the path that led to the World Manufacturing Forum: why was it launched, and what are its objectives?

Since first edition of the forum held in 2011, the World Manufacturing Forum is organised yearly by Politecnico di Milano with financial support from the European Commission. In 2018, thanks to Confindustria Lombardia and Regione Lombardia, in order to give stability and guarantee an expansion of activities, we created the World Manufacturing Foundation, which organises the annual event and deals with various initiatives.
The Foundation, created as an open international organization involving regional governments, companies, trade associations, industrial and non-industrial, therefore has the strategic objective of restoring the centrality of the manufacturing sector in the political agendas of various countries.

The main tools put in place are the World Manufacturing Forum, that last year attracted around 1500 people in three days, and the World Manufacturing Report, a yearly white paper that, through a process of consultation with experts from the world of business, academia and policy makers, collects opinions and offers visions for the future on a specific issue, which are relevant to manufacturing, suggesting key recommendations.

In the first edition, in 2018, we addressed the issue of the future of manufacturing as a lever for creating economic and social well-being; in the second, last year, we focused on the fundamental skills required by the sector. And this year, in the event that will take place on 11 and 12 November, we will talk about artificial intelligence.


The 2020 edition of the Forum has a unique flavour, a flavour relating to distance, but also to post-Covid recovery. What kind of edition will it be?

The format of the event will change due to the need for social distancing, but only in part: it will take place at the traditional venue in Villa Erba di Cernobbio with a maximum of 200 participants, with worldwide streaming.
We asked ourselves, like everyone else, what will be the impact of Covid on the manufacturing sector at regional and global level, and to give us an answer we created the “Back to the Future” project (the quote is intentional), new this year.
We “decomposed” the complexity of the problem into 14 sub-themes and created 14 working groups accordingly, each one coordinated by an expert (managers, representatives of the associative world, policy-makers, academics), who were asked to discuss and analyse the impact of Covid on their area of expertise, and to give recommendations.
We have already shared online, with the public, several drafts of documents and videos, produced by these workshops, whose results will be presented on the first day of the Forum, on November 11. On November 12 we will present the World Manufacturing Report.
If I can give a little preview, next year we will talk about digital transformation as an enabler of manufacturing sustainability, thus bringing together the two most important trends in the sector.


We come from the epic situation of Industry 4.0. How can digitisation in the factory world be a competitive advantage for boosting production and starting up again faster? 

Before the pandemic, it was “normal” to say that digitisation was the competitive advantage, and that’s the way we characterised the 4.0 industry. Now we have changed the statement: it is no longer an advantage, but a business prerequisite.
During the lockdown we saw how digitisation ensured business continuity for many companies that had already invested in this area. For others, unfortunately, there was nothing to be done.
It was a tragic way of realising, undoubtedly, that it affected those companies which, out of ignorance or inertia, had not paid attention to this technological trend.
In our country in particular, which was slower to adopt new technologies, the pandemic has accelerated the awareness of the importance of digitisation.


Large companies and small businesses: who has the advantage in this fourth industrial revolution?

Large companies have been digitising in our country for some time now, even before the “National Industry Plan 4.0” of 2017. Small and medium-sized enterprises, were, in fact, lagging behind. It was thanks to the plan, and the planned tax incentives, that they became aware of this opportunity for modernisation. Paradoxically, it was by talking about tax incentives that it was also possible to train in the field of technology, and this had a huge impact on the cultural growth of our country on these issues.
It is very important that the national plan has continuity over time, and that it is not a one-off incentive, to enable businesses—especially small ones—to plan and build a training and expertise programme. And today, to do so, they have several tools at their disposal, such as the Digital Innovation Hubs, and especially the Competence Centers. The Politecnico di Milano has put itself in the forefront of this last tool by creating MADE, a competence center that, gathering the skills of multiple departments, coordinates the work together with 44 other partners from the academic and industrial world.


What, in your opinion, are the 3 key words on the evolution of digital transformation in factories over the next 6 months?

First of all “servitisation”, i.e. the development of new business models that are being created thanks to new digital activities carried out in remote industries.
And then the second, “remote” or, if you like, “industrial smart working.”
Finally “resilience”, meaning adaptability, reconfigurability and flexibility of the factory and the supply chain.

Manufacturing 4.0: man at the centre

The future of manufacturing is digital and is shaping up in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Small and medium enterprises, like big ones, must equip themselves in order not to be left irremediably behind. Yet, in a fashion that is only apparently paradoxical, Industry 4.0 relaunches the centrality of man and themes such as training and social inclusion.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world’s future equilibrium depends on the manufacturing sector. Convinced of this is Marco Taisch, Professor of Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing at the Politecnico di Milano School of Management: «Manufacturing in the future will have a bona fide role of peacekeeper. Thanks to its evolution and its diffusion, we’ll see a decrease in migratory phenomena and an increase in levels of wellbeing. In other words, we’ll enjoy greater social stability, due also to the positive impact manufacturing has on other sectors of the economy; for example, for every euro generated by manufacturing, at least another two are generated in related services. Provided, of course, that the necessary skills are gradually acquired, without which sustainability at all levels is unthinkable».

During World Manufacturing Forum 2018, Marco Taisch, scientific chairman, presented a report with ten recommendations for the future of manufacturing. The issue of skills and training is among those seen as most important: «It’s necessary to invest in people, in addition to technologies. Training has a more than linear impact: without it, technologies can’t deploy their full potential». There’s a caveat, however. Unlike other sectors, manufacturing above all needs specific skills: «Cross-cutting expertise is always useful, but in this case digital and hard skills are more important than in other sectors».

It’s for this reason that there’s a need for change in the world of training. If on one hand analysts concur that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will lead to a negative net impact on employment in the short term, on the other Professor Taisch affirms that this will become positive in the medium-long term: «Provided, however, that there is a change in the way of communicating about manufacturing, a sector still associated with a ‘dirty’ image, that scares off families and pushes young people to pursue courses of study that then won’t find an outlet on the market».

Universities are gearing up. Politecnico di Milano’s School of Management, for example, offers an executive programme in Manufacturing Management that aims to make clear the potential of a future manufacturing system that is new, advanced, intelligent and sustainable and introduce the constituent elements of the modern industrial revolution.

An opportunity to be seized, therefore. Also by adopting a framework of inclusivity and diversity: «For a long time manufacturing was the prerogative of the male gender, for trivial issues of physical strength – continues Taisch –. The 4.0 technologies shift the centre of gravity from muscles to the brain, and thus more towards women. And then I am personally convinced, and with me many other experts, that companies can see a great advantage from the hiring of a diverse workforce in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity. It’s an issue of competitiveness, other than ethics».

On the other hand, fears are not lacking, and often are expressed by companies themselves or by those who are already in the workforce, scared by the idea that a machine can shut them out of the productive process: «In reality it’s not like that. The 4.0 technologies are enabling. They’re not alternative to people, but increase their capabilities and productivity, further strengthening them», explains Professor Taisch.

Another element that leads to diffidence, especially among SMEs, is cybersecurity: «The cloud scares people. Many companies ask us: ‘Where are my data?’. The fear arises first from a lack of understanding, and secondly from an overestimation of the risks that technologies do indeed entail.
Companies lose data much more often because of a faulty backup, than because of the cloud. The truth is that a company that positions itself outside of the Net is destined to disappear in a few years, and that today data should be considered for all purposes as a raw material».