In the future, factory operations will likely revolve around the concept of advanced manufacturing, which digitally links design, product engineering, manufacturing, supply chain, distribution, service and repair in a seamless process of efficiency and continuous improvement.

We call it the “Brilliant Factory” concept and –no surprise here—we’re working hard to turn it from a futuristic vision into an everyday reality. In fact, the Brilliant Factory is only one manifestation of the steady evolution in manufacturing.

My colleagues, Marco Annunziata and Stephan Biller, have written a great white paper, ‘The Future of Work’, in which they describe three converging forces that are driving change across the world of manufacturing. Those three forces are the Internet of Things (which we call the “Industrial Internet”, IoT for industries), advanced manufacturing and the “global brain,” which is an amalgam of high-performance computing, robotics and artificial intelligence. Marco is our Chief Economist at GE and Stephan is our Chief Manufacturing Scientist, they understand how this paradigm shift will transform manufacturing and the global economy better than anyone.

From their perspective, the factory of the future will enable designers to generate prototypes faster and more cost-effectively than ever before using 3D printing. That in turn, accelerates the cycle of design, prototyping and production. “Engineers can ‘print’ one part, test it and, based on the test feedback, quickly adjust the digital design and reprint an improved version of the part—all using the same additive manufacturing machine,” writes Marco and Stephan. “Adjustments to the production process, as well as to supply chain and distribution logistics, can be calculated and enacted in real time.”

As a CIO, I find the evolution of manufacturing incredibly exciting. From my vantage point, IT and OT (Operational Technology) are finally merging. Traditionally, IT was about closing the books and generating reports for accounting. Increasingly, IT is becoming the infrastructure for OT to optimize manufacturing processes, reduced costs and shortened product timelines. For me and for most of the CIOs I know, that is a welcome development.

Don’t get me wrong, leveraging technology to optimize the finance department is still critically important. But the idea of leveraging IT to change and improve the physical world around us seems genuinely inspiring. With the convergence of IT and OT, we have a great opportunity to exploit information from digital technologies to better serve decision-making based on optimized business processes, production and performance.

“We see the Industrial Internet as foundational to the new world of advanced manufacturing and Brilliant Factories”

Let’s look briefly at the ways in which IT intersects with the newer trends in manufacturing. Mobility enables the people involved in manufacturing processes to access real-time information, anywhere and anytime. Gone are the days of clipboards, loose leaf notebooks and bulky manuals. Everything you need to know is available through your mobile device.

Networking is evolving. In the past, each factory had its own separate network. Increasingly, the factory’s network is part of a larger integrated network that blends financial, operational, sales and marketing information.

In addition to enabling mobility and connectivity, the cloud allows factory managers to spin up IT services much faster and much less expensively than in the past. With cloud-based IT, you can experiment faster than ever before.

Big Data and advanced analytics offer enormous potential benefits for manufacturing. With Big Data in the loop, operations managers can use advanced Big Data analytics to look into historical process data, identify patterns and relationships among inputs and process steps, and optimize the parameters that will have the greatest effect on yield. Operations can be optimized continuously, not just at pre-determined intervals. Machines and parts can be replaced before they fail, saving huge amounts of time and money. Integrating advanced analytics with manufacturing processes will make it possible to achieve the goal of zero downtime, which will become increasingly critical as automation becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Naturally, we see the Industrial Internet as foundational to the new world of advanced manufacturing and Brilliant Factories. We’ve demonstrated the value of the Industrial Internet by using it to improve the design and performance of many products we build, including jet engines, diesel locomotives, gas turbines, wind generators, CT scanners and a host of other technologies that are transforming the global economy.

I visited one of our plants in Europe that manufactures membranes for large-scale water filtration systems. It is one of the most automated factories I’ve ever seen. They track and measure everything from humidity to product quality at the microscopic level. The plant’s IT system is said to handle more daily transactions than NASDAQ. They quite literally know every detail about the products they manufacture, from the raw materials they are made from to their operational performance in the field. They put that knowledge to use every day, improving their processes and improving their products. It’s extraordinarily impressive, and it fills me with hope for the future of IT.

Indeed, the future of IT and the future of manufacturing are inextricably linked. The bond between IT and manufacturing will only grow stronger and deeper. Soon, it will be impossible to separate them.