Production comprises a wide range of activities, its scope encompassing the origination of inputs, product design, manufacturing and distribution, all the way to consumer use and return or reuse. Production embraces practically all sectors of the economy, and is the dominant focus of R&D spending in national innovation systems.

It has been an important driver throughout economic history – the story of previous industrial revolutions is largely that of the evolution of production. It is indeed a critical component of the industrial revolution we are currently embarking on. This is acknowledged by the World Economic Forum in the launch of a major initiative on Shaping the Future of Production that is concerned with unlocking the potential of the production sector while addressing associated global challenges.

Today, imperatives are driving production systems along several axes. Technology could be critical to tackling problems of low productivity that have undermined growth in recent decades, leading to the emergence of new paradigms of production such as distributed manufacturing.

Yet advances in robotics and automation have elicited concerns about the future of work. Production is also expected to play a leading role in addressing the major environmental challenges of our time, whether that is through more efficient use of raw materials, practicing more responsible methods of mining, or encouraging shifts in the geography of trade such that production occurs closer to the end customer.

These are among the major issues in the production ecosystem that leaders in business, government and civil society need to explore. Underpinning the transformational process that production systems are undergoing – with implications for business models, economic growth, employment and sustainability – are breakthroughs in technology and innovation, which are unprecedented in terms of their speed and scope.

Many of these emerging technologies shaping production derive from the manifold capabilities of computing and connectivity, including artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), next-generation robotics, 3D printing and wearables. However, production systems are being further defined by the ability of technologies to act in concert, combined and connected, with this confluence extending to other burgeoning areas of technology, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, advanced materials, biotechnology and others. This opens up tremendous potential, and it also makes the future yet harder to fathom.

Through its initiative on the Shaping the Future of Production, the World Economic Forum is focused on tracking these new approaches and capabilities, in conjunction with businesses across the production landscape as well as with policy-makers and civil society, in order to build production systems that work for the benefit of all.

Among the most critical sources of cutting-edge innovation today are start-up companies enabling compelling new capabilities that augur new possibilities in production. A vital part of the dynamic needed to attain the benefits of technology and innovation in production involves the need for innovators and big companies to be able to innovate together. For while larger companies bring the benefits of scale and what that means for the logistics of distribution, for example, the size of incumbents can make them slow-moving in a business landscape that requires nimbleness and the willingness to pursue new ideas.

The World Economic Forum global community of Technology Pioneers provides a platform for spearheading companies at the forefront of design, development and implementation of new technologies and innovations. Technology Pioneers are an exceptionally diverse and innovative community, active in a wide range of sectors and selected on a range of criteria, including the potential to make a substantial and long-term impact on business and society. This is reflected in the successes of selected companies, whose number includes Airbnb, Google, Kickstarter, Palantir Technologies, Rethink Robotics, Spotify and Twitter.

Among the new and exciting cohort of 30 Technology Pioneers, we will be involving several in our work, companies whose innovations and product offerings are of significant relevance to the megatrends driving production. Many of these companies exemplify the combinational impact that emerging technologies could have on production systems.

  • Artificial intelligence and the internet of things are pervasive technologies whose impact on production is already being felt. Citrine Informatics are using AI to anticipate the behaviour of chemicals under any condition, Aclima designs and deploys real-time environmental sensor networks fused with AI, while KONUX are developing smart sensor systems and AI-based analytics in the industrial internet of things (IIoT).
  • Autonomous vehicles is an area of intense research interest, reflected in other members of the 2017 selection. Chronocam are creating computer vision systems for autonomous navigation and IoT applications. Beijing Horizon Robotics are developing a computer infrastructure to facilitate AI computing, perception, cognition and real-time decision-making on smart devices, including software to enhance safety on the road for self-driving vehicles. nuTonomy develops software for self-driving cars with the goal of launching the world’s first commercial autonomous mobility-on-demand service.
  • Big data and predictive analytics are expanding areas of research, critical to assisting decision-making in the evolving production system landscape. The 2017 selection of Technology Pioneers includes Maana, a company building a decision-management engine, and Uptake, which is developing a software as a service (SaaS) model for predictive diagnostics and fleet management.
  • Deep Instinct and Cymmetria address the important challenges of cybersecurity, be it the application of deep learning to cybersecurity (Deep Instinct) or the development of cyber-deception solutions to control an attacker's activity in a network (Cymmetria).
  • Desktop Metal are expanding the scope of 3D printing through the development of a low-cost, office-friendly metal 3D printing system, and, demonstrating how production is charting new territory and embracing fields such as biotechnology, Zymergen is deploying robotics and machine learning to better manipulate microbes.
  • Meanwhile, noting that sustainability will be a key pillar in the future evolution of production systems, we also have Physee joining the Technology Pioneers, a company that produces fully transparent and colourless electricity-generating windows.

The work of the Shaping the Future of Production initiative has already benefited from the involvement of two Technology Pioneers – Upskill and Formlabs – who are represented in our leadership group. We look forward to their number being augmented by members of the 2017 cohort.

As technological innovation will be an increasingly germane element of future production systems, Technology Pioneers will increasingly be an integral component of this Forum community to work on topics that are crucial to the future of production.