Alvin Toffler. Source: Rockwell Automation.

Alvin Toffler, renowned futurist and keynote speaker at Rockwell Software’s RSTechEd 2008, has a stern warning for manufacturers. “If manufacturing companies hope to survive an unfolding economic upheaval, they’ll have to understand the Third-Wave revolution. Those that fail to do so will become casualties like the nameless, forgotten financial empires wiped out a century or more ago by the industrial revolution.”

Toffler has defined the “Third-Wave” revolution as a knowledge revolution, which follows the “Second Wave” industrial revolution (1650 – 1900s) and the “First Wave” agrarian revolution that turned hunter-gatherers into agriculturists. This knowledge-based revolution is accelerated by technology and communications, especially the Internet, and is responsible for reshaping the architecture of manufacturing corporations; no longer do all the functions of a company need to be confined to one building or one country.

Toffler told the audience of software engineers and system integrators that they have a vital role to play in the knowledge revolution as it reshapes manufacturing and creates a new world economy, unlike any seen before. “We grew up in an economy that turned out mass products for mass consumption promoted by mass advertising in the mass media.” Today, he says, even backward industries are being forced to “de-massify” their output, providing diversity of choice for more and more discriminating customers.

In his iconic book, Future Shock, Toffler forecasted acceleration-not only in technology, but also in employment, media, diplomatic relations, family life, finance and everything else. This speed-up poses problems for organizations that can’t keep up such as governments mired in bureaucracy and our educational system where “one size fits all.”

“We say we’re becoming a knowledge-based economy,” says Toffler, “and when most people consider the knowledge age, they think about technology. But technology is only a small part of a much larger phenomenon.” Unlike older resources such as oil, coal and gold, knowledge is inexhaustible, a resource that continually breeds more of itself.

The challenge to manufacturers will be to adapt to new operational rules that enable them to create new products at a moment’s notice to satisfy discriminating customer demands. Companies may be forced to define operational units (personnel) for a project, and when that project is finished, dissolve the unit. Engineers will need to design flexible lines that are capable of creating several product types faster, cheaper and with more throughput to accommodate our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles. To survive, organizations will have to stay current with trends that demand change and flexibility.