The current global manufacturing landscape is the outcome of successive innovation and economic development waves, including their geographical accumulation. Although the industrial revolution is often considered a single ongoing event that began in the late 18th century, it can be better understood as four sequential paradigm shifts or four industrial revolutions. Each revolution was built upon the innovations of the prior revolution and led to more advanced forms of manufacturing and more complex networks of commercial relations.
- The first industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries focused on the benefits of mechanization where for the first time, some animal or human labor could be substituted by mechanical labor. The new machines required a large amount of labor and energy to be operated as this expanded the scale of outputs with the majority of labor tasks performed manually. New forms of manufacturing activities emerged, creating industrial cities of various functions and specializations (steel, textiles, tools, etc.). These cities tended to be located close to sources of energy such as coal fields and waterfalls or at locations well connected to the regional transportation network. Mechanization enabled the first industrial nations to accelerate their development, which led to a growing divergence between industrializing and non-industrial economies.
- The second industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th century relied on the application of the principle of mass production along assembly lines, which was able to scale up manufacturing output with higher coordination between labor, tasks, processes, and machines. This further incited a level of specialization and interdependence in manufacturing, which led to the setting of industrial regions (or manufacturing belts). Electrification also played a significant role in supporting the emergence of modern telecommunication systems such as telegraphs, radios, telephones, and, later on, televisions. The development of massified forms of long-distance transport, such as rail and steamships, further enabled the expansion of the market reach of manufacturing.
- The third industrial revolution that took place in the latter part of the 20th century benefited from the ongoing automation of several manufacturing processes, using machines that are able to repeat a series of tasks under relatively well-defined parameters and minimal supervision. It also relied on the development of information technologies, initially with the digital computer, and then with its convergence with information technologies by the end of the 20th century. This led to the formation of the internet. At the same time, globalization (as an outcome of trade liberalization and lower transport costs, in part brought by containerization) enabled the minimization of input costs, particularly related to labor, and thus a new manufacturing landscape. This led to a paradoxical outcome as lower-cost labor in developing economies became a suitable alternative to mechanization. Since labor costs are not ubiquitous, this incited the setting of global production networks where manufacturing activities tried to minimize input costs while logistics and transportation enabled to support the spatial differentiation of production and consumption. This process was very disruptive to the existing manufacturing landscape, including the closure of manufacturing facilities in many advanced economies. Many developing economies, particularly in East Asia, started to quickly catch up with the level of economic development of advanced economies.
- The fourth industrial revolution is unfolding and is mostly based on robotization (with supporting IT structures forming cyber-physical systems), which confers a higher level of flexibility in terms of the locations, the manufacturing processes, the scale and scope of the output, and the customization of the products. Robotization goes beyond mechanization by enabling machines to perform more complex tasks and being able to adapt to a redefinition of these tasks. Machines are therefore getting similar to the flexibility of human labor. They involve more than simple and repetitive tasks but increasingly average skilled and routine tasks. In such of context, the importance of input costs, particularly labor, is rebalanced since labor can be considered close to ubiquitous for manufacturing relying on robotization. The focus, therefore, shifts to global value chains, which are a circular process of gathering resources, transforming them into parts and products, distributing finished goods to markets, and finally making these resources available again through various recycling and reuse strategies. Manufacturing and supply chain management become closely embedded.
Manufacturing is often considered a separate activity from distribution since most manufacturing activities are trying to minimize input costs (e.g. labor) while distribution activities are trying to maximize market accessibility. This is particularly the case for distribution activities related to finished goods. However, globalization, particularly the resulting international division of production, has reinforced the importance of distribution capabilities to support the geographical and functional complexity of value chains.
Since a growing aspect of manufacturing becomes less dependent on basic inputs costs such as labor and land (as a total share of added value), the flexibility of manufacturing is more related to accessing suppliers and customers. Under such circumstances, areas with access to global and regional distribution systems accumulated an important advantage (or component) in the fourth industrial revolution. Flexibility relies on the concept of flow, and logistics zones (freight distribution clusters) are expected to assume a growing share of manufacturing. Further to the pressure of robotization on employment, there is likely to be pressure on profits since it would increase the supply of goods and reduce their production costs. In time, this favors the emergence of a new manufacturing landscape where production and distribution capabilities are closely embedded. Since logistics is a transport-related activity, logistics zones near large terminal facilities such as ports, airports, and intermodal rail yards offer an attractive proposition for the emerging manufacturing landscape of the fourth industrial revolution.