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Design, engineering and manufacturing will remain at the heart of the industry of the future – but they will be transformed by new technology.

A transformation in production and industry is bringing new choice and ease of access to customers – and new complexity to designers, engineers and manufacturers.

I recently bought a new car, and, as you might expect, was offered a wide range of customisation options. However, that level of choice is no longer limited to big-ticket purchases like cars.

When my children order shoes from Nike, they are given the opportunity to specify colours and designs, and even to have their names stitched into the exterior before they are shipped. It may not be long before we expect our shoes to be custom-created to fit 3D scans of our feet.

The rise of research

Manufacturers of discrete products – whether cars or shoes – are facing an on-going wave of disruption: we are calling this the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Although the details vary between industries, the core drivers are common to all.

Globalisation is opening up the markets companies can sell to and the markets they can buy from. A growing global population is increasing demand, but also changing priorities – sustainability and low cost of production are becoming paramount. Demand is also affected by universal connectivity – connected consumers are able to compare a vast range of products and prices from suppliers across the world.

These consumers have demands and expectations for customisation that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. For example, the Motorola X smartphone has 18 different possible backplate colours, which combine with other choices to offer more than 2,000 possible combinations. Connectivity extends from manufacturers, retailers and consumers to the products themselves. Products can continue to report to manufacturers throughout their lives, and as electronics become less expensive and more ubiquitous these behaviours are found in ever more products.

As a result, we are seeing fundamental changes to business models; rather than selling a product, manufacturers provide the physical component of an on-going service. That service could be a mobile phone contract (with operating system upgrades), the streaming provider that sends music to that phone - or a jet engine being leased by its manufacturer, rather than sold, and replaced after a set number of miles in the air.

Managing that lifecycle is a major challenge facing manufacturers – from initial conception to recycling, and with the flexibility and transparent insight to understand the benefits and costs of every change or customisation.

No product is immune to these changes, but that means every product can benefit. At its new plant in York, Pennsylvania, Harley-Davidson offers 1,700 possible variations on a single production line, producing one highly customised bike every 90 seconds.

Long before the parts are assembled, during the research and development stages, SAP helped Harley-Davidson to connect its researchers and engineers to product manufacturing, accounting – the entire value chain. This integration means that, even when a product exists only as a digital model, it can be examined and modified, with every proposed change reflected in a single, unified vision reaching through the production process to the company’s accounts.

In upcoming blogs, we will look in more detail at the way SAP helps researchers, designers and manufacturers to move seamlessly from a promising idea to real-world performance. If you would like know more immediately, download our white paper, Maximising Opportunity in a New Technology-Driven Industrial Revolution, and explore SAP’s solutions for Research and Development here.