Living tomorrow

I don’t think that China will remain the global manufacturing hub

How the Industry 4.0 evolution is bringing the local economy back to the forefront

Joachim De Vos

Joachim De Vos - CEO Living Tomorrow

Living Tomorrow is a remarkable spot in Flanders. It is a wormhole to the future, where visitors can discover which technologies will make our lives easier in the years to come. Not surprisingly, Industry 4.0 has a key role. CEO Joachim De Vos explains how Living Tomorrow came into being, and how the centre not only showcases the evolutions in Industry 4.0, but also helps to shape them.

“Living Tomorrow came into being a quarter of a century ago. The year 2000 was approaching, and people felt very unsure about the future. The centre wanted to address this issue and clarify how emerging technologies would be used in our daily lives. Today, Living Tomorrow is a kind of Living Lab, a discovery platform that presents the story of the future.

But we want to do more than just show the future. We also want to prepare for it. That happens inside Tomorrow Lab, where we work together with companies, organizations, governments, cities, and municipalities. For them too, it is often difficult to imagine how the future will evolve and how best to respond to it.”

Building Industry 4.0 with 100 partners

“This collaboration is organized in vision groups, and it is in this framework that a great deal is happening around Industry 4.0. We’re working together with no less than a hundred partners. With Multipharma [a chain of 250 pharmacies], we’re building the pharmacy of the future. With construction company Cordeel, we’re working on all kinds of construction innovations. And with BDO [a big player in Audit, Accountancy and Consultancy], we’re thinking about the future of consultancy.

With drinking water company Farys, we’re mapping the future of water landscapes, and we’re doing the same for energy networks with Fluvius [network manager for electricity and natural gas]. For the electrification of vehicle fleets and autonomous driving we’re collaborating with Mercedes. With technology company ABB it’s all about robots and smart buildings, while with Fostplus [a key player in the circular economy] we’re looking at the future of recycling and the circular economy. With Miele it’s service robots and household appliances.

And there’s more examples. We’re working with Medtronic [specialized in medical technology] on the medical world, and we’re talking with the Purmo Group [sustainable climate solutions for the home] about everything related to energy and heating. With Q8, we’re guiding the mobility transition throughout Europe: which services are involved in the shift from oil products to sustainable energy. We’re also working together with cities, municipalities, government organizations, and public bodies.”


A world first in digital twins

“Digital twins is an Industry 4.0 issue that many of our partners are dealing with. We apply it ourselves in the Building Innovation Modelling system, which entails creating a complete digital model of your building in 3D. You then add dynamic data to it with the help of real-time sensors in the real world. For example, we’re scanning buildings with drones to see how we can improve the insulation. Drones also conduct safety scans, for example, checking where dangerous objects are and where people are at risk on site.

Cameras provide information about which windows lack insulation, and how this can be fixed. This information is all fed into the model, so it becomes a digital twin of your building. All partners working on the building receive automatic feedback to optimize their systems and to produce better ones.

Living Tomorrow has even achieved a world first in the field of digital twins for product design. As part of the Future Vision project, we have created a hologram table that allows manufacturers to design and test products virtually. You actually see your product appear, and then you can read out all the data.

We are also working hard on service robots. For example, together with Mercedes, we’re looking at how we can work with brainwaves in the AVTR [Mercedes’ car of the future]. Not to control the car – because the AVTR is intended to drive completely autonomously within ten years – but to control the entertainment functions. So, we’re looking for completely new interfaces in the car of the future. Because it will no longer be necessary to pay attention to the road, we will have a lot of free time in this kind of mobility cocoon.”

Living tomorrow small

In search of the ideal digital interaction

“Conferences play a key role in bringing together ideas and companies. They provide an enormous amount of inspiration. This year, for example, we are organizing a conference with Ghent University Hospital and the Belgian army, at which we will translate military medical innovations into practice for civil patients like you and me.

Many conferences are now a hybrid of physical attendance and video meetings, and I feel that a certain fatigue has set in. People don’t just attend conferences to learn, they also want to network. At Living Tomorrow, we’re looking for the ideal digital interaction. Why should we still be thinking about mega-conferences with thousands of visitors? We’re considering this question with a group that has hotels in almost every country in the world. If you can connect these hotels virtually, with say 200 people per hotel, then you can also bring ten thousand people together. Using holographic projection, you can give people the feeling that the speaker is present. Demonstrations can be experienced in 3D, partly by personalizing them for each country. That way, people don’t have to travel thousands of kilometres to hear six speakers, and  it’s much easier to organize.”

From Mass Production to Personalized Production

“The era of hyper-mass production is coming apart at the seams. The logistics chains are under pressure. There are chip shortages and materials shortages; as soon something goes wrong, growth comes to a halt.

Industry 4.0 is a game changer in that respect, because it facilitates the shift from mass production to mass customization. With mass production, the production moves to low-wage countries, because only the cost of the product counts. With mass customization, it’s the range that matters. You’re no longer focused on one, mass-produced item, but instead on a broader range of products.

Efficiency then becomes the decisive factor, which drives the evolution towards high-tech products. As a manufacturer, you can take it one step further and move towards personalized production, which leads to added-value personalized products with built-in sensors.

"Industry 4.0 is a game changer, because it facilitates the shift from mass production to mass customization."

If you look at this evolution from the consumer’s perspective, there’s a shift from making a simple purchase to making a choice, because in mass customization a much broader range of products is possible. This requires a company to be closer to its customers, which become in a way co-designers. Tesla is a great example of this. They put a car on the market that is not 100% finished. While the car is driving, feedback is sent to the central system, which continues to improve the cars. More and more products will come onto the market at an early state, and get better and better through all kinds of updates. This is how the shift from mass production to personalized story happens.

In the past, you needed a mega factory to produce a million items, otherwise you couldn’t make a profit. These mega factories were built in low-wage countries. But I don’t think that countries like China will remain the world’s manufacturing hub. With the evolution towards personalized production, local production will become important once again. Which implies that the ownership of raw materials will also remain local. They will be reprocessed, because it must all happen in a circular way. And that is exactly what we excel at in the Western world. That creates enormous opportunities for our region to become a world player once more.”

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