Forum Institutional

The industrial metaverse and its future paths

Robots welding in a car factory: the industrial metaverse at work. Davos 2023

Laying out a vision of how an industrial metaverse could look and what pitfalls need to be avoided. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thomas Bohné
Founder and Head, Cyber-Human Lab, University of Cambridge
Cathy Li
Head, AI, Data and Metaverse; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
Francisco Betti
Head, Global Industries Team; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Whichever version of an industrial metaverse becomes reality, the underlying technologies to enable it mostly exist already.
  • Decision-makers must consider how their organizations deal with the new opportunities and challenges the industrial metaverse offers.
  • To start a global conversation, we sketch a vision of how an industrial metaverse could look and what pitfalls need avoidance.

The idea of an industrial metaverse has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months. It describes, in short, a highly immersive and connected virtual and physical reality enabling never-before-seen levels of connectivity and data analytics. While the exact vision and its implementation are still widely discussed and uncertain, it is clear that the technologies underpinning different visions of an industrial metaverse mostly exist already. Key technologies in use include digital twins, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, cloud and edge-computing, blockchain and extended reality. As well, supportive technology infrastructure are active, such as 5G networks for low-latency data communication and robotic systems.

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What is less clear is how decision-makers should react to the emergence of an industrial metaverse. However, every company will have to make decisions about the industrial metaverse. To help make these decisions and start a global conversation of decision-makers, we describe a future that may await companies in an industrial metaverse and highlight some of the pitfalls that must be circumnavigated.

An industrial metaverse vision

Work: In the industrial metaverse, digital work opportunities abound. Because physical and digital worlds are tightly interwoven, this allows new opportunities for distributed work, and makes workers more geographically independent from locations. New human-machine interactions proliferate. Tools, robots and machines are operated either autonomously or remotely by skilled operators. Human work and the context in which it takes place are captured by sensors and are fully digitalised, allowing detailed analysis and optimisation of human input requirements. This will reduce work in dangerous and unhealthy contexts while creating new jobs, innovative divisions of labour and higher inclusion of people with different skills. A pitfall to avoid is the inappropriate use of data to meet simplistic metrics or micromanage people and their contributions.

Data and security: Data can be seamlessly shared within organizations and selectively shared with suppliers and customers. Security, privacy, data biases and data-based discrimination may be solved. This allows meta-analyses of data and extensive know-how aggregation and automated AI solutions. Moreover, it enables different data spheres to converge. Key risks that need to be addressed include lack of interoperability and the protection of intellectual property of supplier, customer and employee data.

Competition: The industrial metaverse enables a wide range of complementary services. This enables a rich ecosystem of specialised providers and many new innovative services to be connected to – and used in – the industrial metaverse. Risks to avoid are a highly concentrated landscape in which few players dominate the market, and a new technological divide between companies with access to an industrial metaverse and those without.

Technology and operations: A high degree of digitalisation will allow for easier implementation of solutions, accelerating the adoption of full-scale digital twin factories, supply chains, and related infrastructure operations and management such as transportation, city planning, and energy management. Communication between companies is based on seamless data sharing and increased collaboration within and outside companies. This in turn enables connected factories between different organizations, allowing more sustainable and resilient ways to use manufacturing resources and meet demand changes. A pitfall to avoid is the over-reliance on technology that might not be able to adapt like humans, if disruptions in the supply chain or other low-probability events happen.

Customers: Customer-facing use cases for transparency and customisation increase customer satisfaction and feedback. Widely available, highly realistic product visualisations will enhance the purchasing process and reduce waste and returns. A pitfall to avoid is improper customer data handling and the forced lock-in effect.

The vision we sketch is decidedly optimistic because it is worth striving for a better future. To realize a positive future in the industrial metaverse, companies will have to make their own decisions that fit with their culture and strategy. This will require new thinking from decision-makers in industry, government, and society to actively shape how an industrial metaverse will evolve and be governed to ensure it progresses for the benefit of industry and society at large.

Get more information on the World Economic Forum’s industrial metaverse, the Augmented Workforce Initiative and the Defining and Building the Metaverse Initiative.

We are grateful to Tim Jamboula, Connie Kuang, Martin Müller, and Francesca Zanolla for their support in helping to research and draft this blog post.

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