While many companies have shifted their mass production facilities – factories which make large quantities of standardized products – to lower-cost countries, the digital transformation of industry is presenting new opportunities for advanced economies, like Belgium, to develop small-scale, on-demand manufacturing.
Industry 4.0, the umbrella term which encapsulates advanced automation, machine connectivity and other new technologies, is not only transforming the production process but also the product itself. 3D printers, for example, now enable one-off production. Instead of going through traditional channels, a company could order a specific part from a small local manufacturer, which ‘prints’ and delivers it the next day. In this model, production is local, lead times are short and the product is customizable.
Although this shift from large-scale to smaller, more flexible manufacturing makes for an increasingly fragmented supply chain, it is also an opportunity to reindustrialize Belgium. With its existing assets – its talent pool, geographic location and innovation clusters – Belgium is well-positioned to be competitive in ‘smart’ manufacturing, but the country has to embrace change.
US manufacturers are strong in Belgium, and they have an important role to play in this transformation, leading by example and fostering an open and entrepreneurial mindset.