Industry 4.0 is a hot topic in China, not least because of the extensive government policies aimed at promoting increased innovation that have been launched as part of the latest five-year plan. The aim of these is to boost the productivity of the country’s huge manufacturing industry and increase its global competitiveness by helping it to move up the value chain through the development of higher-quality and more innovative products.
Given the large investments that are being made in this area and the growing realization among manufacturers that they need to move out of low-margin businesses, it is more a question of when rather than if this transition will be successful. However, while it’s very easy to talk in general terms about the need for innovation, actually implementing it is challenging. If your whole business model has been based on achieving the lowest costs, you can’t suddenly turn on a new innovation pipeline with the flick of a switch. You need to find ways to generate new product concepts and development processes.
One idea that is starting to gaining popularity is a revival of the “craftsman’s spirit” (工匠精神) displayed by generations of China’s artisans in order promote the design and manufacturing of distinctive, high-quality products that will stand out in the market place. This will, of course, take time, but with the rapid proliferation of digital design, prototyping, and manufacturing tools such as 3D printing, the cost of developing and bringing such products to market has reached a point where it makes sense from a business perspective.
Perhaps even more importantly, the market for products embodying the “craftsman’s spirit” is also emerging as the expectations of Chinese consumers increase, particularly in the larger cities. No longer able to compete solely on price, manufacturers will need to up their game in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and generate new sources of revenue.
While by no means a silver bullet, finding interesting new ways of blending traditional artisanal values with modern digital design and production technologies is a promising first step in that direction.