The Future of Advanced Manufacturing

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Advanced manufacturing in 2025 will stem from the evolution of smart software, robotics, and smart-sensor networks, forecasts Social Technologies futurist Matthew Sollenberger. These will then facilitate new developments and capabilities in computer-aided design and production processes.

The DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies recently released a series of 12 briefs that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025. The brief on advanced manufacturing, by futurist Matthew Sollenberger, is the seventh trend in the series.

"Advanced manufacturing in 2025 will stem from the evolution of smart software, robotics, and smart-sensor networks," Sollenberger forecasts. "These will then facilitate new developments and capabilities in computer-aided design and production processes."

Sollenberger foresees improvements in quality control and production efficiency that may enable the rise of mass customization--i.e., the ability to produce low quantities of specific products in a profitable and high-quality manner.

Drivers of Manufacturing Innovation:
Currently, the push to improve advanced manufacturing is being driven by the following factors:

  • Sustainability: Interest in environmental and community sustainability, and consumers' desire to reduce or eliminate waste, are providing incentives to develop efficient, flexible, low-cost production technology. "In addition, consumers are concerned about resource availability and community autonomy," Sollenberger adds.
  • Consumer sophistication: Consumers are also demanding increasing personalization of products. "A 2007 survey of major industrial, electrical, and transport manufacturers revealed that 73% viewed customization as critical to sales for products costing more than $1 million," Sollenberger says. "And 25% perceived it as critical even for products priced below $1,000."
  • Global competition: Pressures to accelerate production, reduce error rates, and climb higher on the value chain are pushing companies to develop increasingly sophisticated manufacturing technology.

Challenges Ahead:
Advanced manufacturing is on course to develop into a formidable market force, Sollenberger believes, but he points to obstacles that will need to be overcome. These include:

  • Bioengineering: Competition from industrial biotechnology, which is becoming increasingly cost-effective in the production of pharmaceuticals, will pose a significant challenge to the advanced manufacturing industry, Sollenberger believes. "By 2020, industrial biotech will be a substantial and growing market force, and for advanced manufacturing to stay relevant, it will need to improve efficiencies and generate less waste."
  • Touchless manufacturing: Advanced manufacturing production lines could very likely erode the competitiveness of low-cost touch labor, forcing many World 2 countries to confront a skills gap. "Millions of factory workers would need to be retrained to be productive in other sectors," Sollenberger forecasts.
  • Integrative processes: The rapid manufacturing technique of solid freeform fabrication (SFF), which creates solid, single-material parts such as bolts or bumper cars, is extremely competitive for many advanced manufacturing organizations. However, currently available technology is not close to enabling those firms to produce more complicated goods, such as computers and TVs. "But as nanomaterials come of age, SFF will adapt," the analyst says.

As advanced manufacturing continues to develop, it will likely redefine present methods of customization and thus have significant commercial and social impacts:

  • Distributed digital manufacturing: Digital manufacturing already exists as state-of-the-art technology enabling organizations to develop, plan, and execute a product with computer simulations and models. The next step will be a convergence of those processes, with layered fabrication and distributed cell production methods. "Supply chains will have virtual networks of supplies that could be called almost on an as-needed basis," Sollenberger says.
  • Garage production: Instead of purchasing a physical product from retailers, consumers could pay for a digitized production plan that allows them the right to make a specific number of copies, and Sollenberger notes: "Over the long term, this could represent a major shift from centralized to distributed, local production."
  • Zero-waste processes: SFF manufacturing already promises to eliminate a large amount of waste. It is conceivable that as technology advances, no waste would be produced. Currently, Nike is leading the charge on this front and is using recycled polymers, water-based solvents, and fabric woven from plastic soda bottles.

Learn More:
To talk to Matthew Sollenberger about the business implications, wildcards, and other implications, contact Hope Gibbs, Social Technologies' Leader of Corporate Communications: hope.gibbs @

About Matthew Sollenberger:
Futurist Matthew Sollenberger joined the research team at Social Technologies in the spring of 2007. Previously he worked as a research analyst at The Arlington Institute (TAI), a futurist consultancy in Northern Virginia, where he focused on the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Project for an Asian government, and engaged in Middle Eastern conflict modeling, systems thinking, and morphological analysis. Also at TAI, he co-authored a paper on the implications of wildcards for long-term US national security interests, published in the Fall 2006 issue of National Strategy Forum Review. A 2005 graduate of Swarthmore College's political science program--with high honors and a minor in peace and conflict studies--Matthew brings to the job a passion for global issues. While in college, he was a research assistant at the World Policy Institute, working on its Counter-Terrorism Project. Matthew collaborated on a paper, "Prisons and the Education of Terrorists," that was published in the Fall 2004 issue of World Policy Journal. Areas of expertise include Foreign policy, Technology.

About Social Technologies:
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit, our blog:, and our newsletter:


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