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Future ways of working: Retail, construction and manufacturing

Daniella Doughan
Business and Finance Journalist

Daniella Doughan is a business and finance journalist from Sydney, Australia.

Daniella Doughan
Business and Finance Journalist

Daniella Doughan is a business and finance journalist from Sydney, Australia.

From 3D printing to robot bricklayers, we take a look at what the future could look like in the manufacturing, retail and construction industries.

Sixty-five per cent of children starting school today will eventually work in jobs that don’t yet exist, according to a recent World Economic Forum Report. Meanwhile, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicts that up to five million of the nation’s jobs are likely to be automated by 2030.

Add in constantly shifting consumer trends and all businesses – from startups to global giants – will need to be more adaptive if they want to thrive beyond the near future.

Here’s how the future may unfold for the manufacturing, retail and construction industries.

A man in a factory working with a small crane


Advances in production technology, such as 3D printing, mean prototypes can now be developed and tested quickly, and customised products can be created on demand. Just look at Invisalign, which uses 3D printing to create made-to-order teeth alignment products.

3D printing stock on demand may also reduce your warehousing, distribution and inventory management expenses.

This developing technology is expected to transform manufacturing into a sophisticated sector with a need for highly skilled engineers and specialists to help maintain automated production systems.

Find out more about how your business can take advantage of "The Internet of things revolution".
Find out moreFind out more about how your business can take advantage of "The Internet of things revolution".

“Advanced robots with enhanced senses, dexterity and intelligence can be more practical than human labour in manufacturing, as well as in a growing number of service jobs, such as cleaning and maintenance,” reads the World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution.

Supply chain distribution and delivery is also set to change, thanks to autonomous vehicles. “It is now possible to create cars, trucks, aircraft and boats that are completely or partly autonomous, which could revolutionise transportation, if regulations allow, as early as 2020,” states the same World Economic Forum report.

Google is building a prototype for self-driving cars, and self-driving Volvos are already on Swedish roads, with real customers expected to be using them by 2017.

Then there’s the Internet of Things (IoT). A recent report by Digital Industry Insider predicts manufacturers will invest US$70 billion on IoT solutions globally in 2020, up from US$29 billion in 2015.

The IoT trend is already well underway in manufacturing, with plenty of real-world examples. A General Electric (GE) Durathon battery plant, for example, uses connected devices to collect data 24/7 through thousands of sensors on the assembly line to analyse and share the near real-time status of production.

Wind turbines made by GE also contain thousands of sensors producing 400 data points per second, allowing the company to improve turbine performance and quickly make decisions about maintenance and parts replacement.

In the next five years, 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things, according to technology consulting firm Gartner. Is your business ready?


The rise of consumer-led product design has created an entire made-to-order industry, with Australian businesses at the forefront. Institchu allows buyers to choose their preferred fabric and style options, enter size details, and get a custom-made suit or shirt delivered to their doorstep. Shoes of Prey has a similar concept for – you guessed it – shoes, while Disrupt Sports offers bespoke custom-made sports gear including surfboards and skateboards. The Daily Edited (on track to turn over $15 million this year) offers a monogram service for its leather bags, purses and clutches. Because why have an off-the-rack option when your name can be monogrammed onto your purse?

The big guys are also joining in, with the Create Your Taste menu at McDonald’s seeing customers build their own burgers. While burger building might not seem like a technological breakthrough, it is driven by the changing expectations of today’s consumers, who have grown accustomed to a more personalised experience made possible by today’s technology.

Online shopping – and the convenience of 24/7 ordering that comes with it – is expected to account for almost 40 per cent of retail sales by 2020, according to the Commonwealth Bank’s Retail Insights Report 2015. And with consumers aged under 30 accounting for the highest share of spending and the fastest rate of spending growth, it’s a growing market with plenty of opportunities for savvy businesses.

Mobile commerce is also tipped for growth, especially if it offers better accessibility and improved customer service. “The main threat is competitors with better mobile websites and apps designed for smartphones and better technologies,” said one NSW retailer, with a turnover between $20 million and $50 million, in the Retail Insights Report.

Getting your products onto the customer’s doorstep is also set to speed up. Australia Post is trialling the use of drones for delivery, while Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is testing drones to deliver burritos to hungry students in the US. Amazon Prime Air is at the forefront of drone delivery, with plans to use drones to deliver packages within 30 minutes of an order being placed.

And as if that wasn’t enough, expect to see more virtual reality – or should that be virtual retail? eBay and Myer recently teamed up to bring us the world’s first virtual reality department store, Adidas is trialling a virtual change room, and Tommy Hilfiger lets shoppers watch a catwalk show in stores using a virtual reality experience

Tesco also initiated a virtual reality supermarket using walls in stations and subways in Korea. The wall, designed to look like a supermarket shelf, displays images of products, complete with a QR code to scan using a mobile phone. The shopper pays for the order online and products are scheduled to be delivered at a convenient time, usually on the same day.  


Construction boasts the biggest number of self-employed workers in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and the huge growth of the industry (at least in Sydney) is fuelled by a boom in foreign financers, low interest rates and investors returning to the market.   

ABS figures show construction contributed more than $124 billion to Australia’s annual GDP (about 9 per cent) in the 2014-2015 financial year. The prefabricated housing sector accounts for $4.6 billion, but is expected to grow at over 5 per cent per year compared to the overall construction industry (2.3 per cent) through to 2023, predicts the Australian Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing.

Increased use of modular and prefabricated components can minimise on-site construction, improve productivity, help automate processes, reduce weather delays and improve sustainability, with less impact on the environment.

A World Economic Forum report gives the example of MQ Real Estate, which developed a scalable modular apartment system that lets firms build non-permanent housing or hotels within weeks in dense urban areas, as a way to deal with seasonal peaks in demand.

But modular components only touches the surface of what we can expect in the future of construction. The World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Construction: A breakthrough in mindset and technology report outlines a number of innovative materials with reduced life-cycle costs in the early development phase, including self-healing concrete, rain-absorbing roof-mats (which imitate the process of perspiration to reduce air-conditioning costs) and super-repellent surfaces.

Perhaps the most exciting development is the Hadrian 105 robot, a one-armed robot with a bricklaying speed of 225 standard brick equivalents per hour (about half a day of work for a fast human bricklayer). Created by ASX-listed company Fastbrick Robotics, the full dimensions for the house and brickwork are inputted into Hadrian, who lays all the bricks for the entire house.

With another robot prototype in the works from the Perth-based company, it’s fair to say that construction will look very different in a matter of years, thanks to constantly evolving innovation and technology.

So it’s an exciting time ahead, with new products and services already changing the way people and businesses work, interact and live.  

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