A profound societal transformation is underway on a scale not seen since the great European Renaissance. Then, Gutenberg’s printing press made books — and the knowledge they contained — available to all. Today, the new book is the experience. Digital technology, which enables virtual experiences, is enabling an Industry Renaissance that is shaking all sectors of society with new ways, both real and virtual, of inventing, learning, producing, and trading.

Sweeping change is occurring all around us. Companies with no physical assets — powerful platform companies that include Amazon, Google, and Alibaba — have become full-fledged industry players, inventing autonomous vehicles and connected objects that radically change the way we live.

In fablabs around the world, anyone can create a smart, connected object in just a few hours. Startups Uber and Airbnb have disrupted entire industries, while time-honored firms like Boeing are reinventing themselves with new, service-driven business models. OEMs are engineering deep digital connections with their suppliers, transforming supply chains into value networks.

Something big is happening and it’s more profound than concepts like “digital transformation” can explain. In fact, it is nothing short of a global Industry Renaissance, a transformation in which virtual worlds — complete digital ecosystems that allow users to extend and improve the real world — are enabling humanity to simultaneously imagine, map, model, and engineer entirely new environments for the first time. Digital experience platforms are the infrastructure of these virtual worlds, reducing to zero the distance between places, people, ideas, and solutions while enabling new ways of thinking, learning, acting, and interacting.

“The combination of the virtual worlds and the experience platform is indeed a renaissance, where there is this new-found enthusiasm that goes hand-in-hand with people doing things more effectively in less time for less money,” said Tom Zahner, COO of A. ZAHNER Company, a Kansas City, MO-based architectural engineering, manufacturing, and construction firm. “The enthusiasm you get out of people is incredibly powerful.”

That power is altering the very nature and definition of industry, from a means of production into a process of value creation enabled by high-added-value networks in which the real and virtual merge to create, produce, and exchange sustainable experiences.

“By 2020, we believe at least 55 percent of organizations will be digitally determined, transforming markets and reimagining the future through new business models and digitally enabled products and services,” said Shawn Fitzgerald, head of research for World Wide Digital Transformation Strategies at data firm IDC.

New Categories of Industry

As Fitzgerald noted, Industry Renaissance is enabling new categories of industrial firms to create new categories of solutions for new categories of customers — and the transformation is far more sweeping than the global attention around Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, and Airbnb.

Slovakia-based AeroMobil, for example, is taking pre-orders for a vertical-takeoff flying automobile, a new category of mobility that combines the best of automotive and aviation. That combination, in turn, allows the company to attract an entirely new category of customers — automotive pilots — with an entirely new experience previously available to a select few: on-demand air transportation.

When Kreisel Electric engineers realized that no one had ever engineered a powertrain specifically for electric vehicles, they assembled a global team of experts on their virtual experience platform, creating a virtual universe where everyone could collaborate to solve the challenge. (Image © Kreisel Electric GmbH/Martin Proell)

“We’re trying to democratize personal flight with the ability to fly anywhere at any time and deliver you door-to-door,” said Jonathan Carrier, the company’s vice president for corporate development.

The design process involved 40 experts from aviation and automotive virtually connected on AeroMobil’s virtual experience platform. “The ability to connect and bring together multiple streams of data and experiences into one single platform is extremely powerful,” Carrier said.

Danish shoe firm ECCO, meanwhile, has used its virtual experience platform to produce a unique, experimental customer experience: customized midsoles, 3D-printed to fit each customer’s feet in less than an hour. ECCO’s Quant-U experience combines scanners and sensors to measure and correct individual stride and gait with a customized product. The experience puts ECCO at the crossroads of the footwear and orthotics industries, creating the opportunity to enter entirely new markets and to potentially serve a new array of customers.

“It’s really extremely important to offer profound individualized experiences,” said Patrizio Carlucci, head of ECCO’s Innovation Lab. “This wasn’t possible before without such an intricate but seamless synergy of technologies.”

German agricultural equipment maker CLAAS uses a virtual experience platform to design its latest products. It also provides a virtual world that enables its farmer customers to shop for, customize, and soon test-drive new products — virtually — on the company’s customer portal, CLAAS Connect.

While customers browse and experience, CLAAS collects feedback. Its virtual experience platform analyzes feedback to generate insights that CLAAS can incorporate into its next generation of products. After customers buy, IoT-connected devices installed on their harvesters and combines send a steady stream of data back to the company — data that it can sell, a new business model for CLAAS.

Knowledge and Know-How

As these examples indicate, the very nature of industry is shifting. Rather than being a way of producing standard goods, as it has been for centuries, industry is becoming a process of value creation aimed at serving fast-evolving consumer tastes.

“Today, respondents say that customers are a top driver behind their digital business strategies,” UK-based market research firm Vanson Bourne reports, citing “a rising generation of consumers whose insatiable appetite for faster, slicker, personalized services is creating a fertile environment for nimbler, information-driven companies to thrive in.”

If nimble, information-driven companies are the future, then rich and accessible knowledge and know-how are the new keys to success — not manufacturing capability, as Industry 4.0 emphasizes. Manufacturing, after all, can be outsourced to contract factories. But knowledge and know-how are the raw materials of innovation, determining humanity’s capacity to invent sustainable solutions that address previously intractable global challenges.

This rebirth of learning through digital support for human critical thought transforms industry from a means of production into a process of value creation, enabled by high-added-value networks in which the real and virtual merge to create, produce, and exchange sustainable experiences.

Virtual experience platforms accelerate and expand humanity’s ability to collect, share, experiment with, learn from, and apply knowledge and know-how, unlocking vast blue oceans of innovation. But when superior mastery of knowledge and know-how determines winners and losers, companies burdened with legacy infrastructures fall behind.

“The enterprise architecture in traditional companies typically reflects a bygone era, when it was not necessary for companies to shift their business strategies, release new products and services, and incorporate business processes at hyperspeed,” McKinsey & Company observed in a 2017 study titled “Perpetual Evolution: The Management Approach Required for Digital Transformation.”

Today, hyperspeed is a prerequisite for survival — and virtual worlds on virtual experience platforms deliver.

Industry Renaissance in Action

Kreisel Electric, an e-mobility startup based in Austria, was founded to develop batteries for electric vehicles. The company soon realized, however, that no firm had yet produced a drive train expressly designed for electric vehicles’ specific requirements including fast acceleration and high speed in a very tight space and compatible with available electric motors. Confident that they could significantly improve electric vehicle performance, the team began mapping out a drive train virtually.

Because Kreisel Electric’s expertise was in batteries, however, they used their virtual experience platform to create a virtual world where they could collaborate with engineers specialized in electric vehicle drive train requirements.

“Virtual worlds proved important to prototyping and helped reduce errors, which in turn reduced faults in the development process,” said Helmut Kastler, Kreisel’s head of mechanical and electrical engineering. “Mistakes can be spotted in the virtual world, so a production person can see which part is causing a problem and get back to engineering” to develop a resolution.

As Kreisel Electric’s experience demonstrates, virtual experience platforms extend collaboration to complete ecosystems of contributors, both inside an enterprise and beyond, to virtual networks of suppliers, partners, customers, and prospects. That makes digital experience platforms the infrastructure of Industry Renaissance.

Virtual Singapore, a virtual twin (also known as a digital twin) of the entire city state, is a case in point. For four years, the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) has been building the virtual twin using highly accurate 2D and 3D data to the level of sidewalks, streets — even the plants in parks.

Singapore uses this virtual world as an environment for collaboration among different agencies, said George Loh, director of programmes at NRF. He cited the example of flying a drone in Singapore, which involves applying for permits from multiple government and regulatory agencies.

Rather than applying separately to each ministry, Loh said, a drone operator can submit a proposed flight path in Virtual Singapore, alerting the regulatory agencies to study, ask questions, and approve the permits. Meanwhile, other agencies may see opportunities to collect data along the same flight path for their projects.

For example, they may be looking at monitoring the construction of a new subway line or mapping the flora in a city park. Their requests can be added to the flight path, increasing efficiency because a single flight can meet the needs of multiple parties. “The digital twin is a new concept and required a paradigm shift,” Loh said. “It’s a completely new way of acquiring knowledge and learning.”

ZAHNER, which describes itself as “the intersection of art and architecture,” is another example of just how transformative virtual experience in virtual worlds can be. ZAHNER is renowned for its ability to produce buildings with mind-bending shapes including the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, clad in arresting steel ribbons that undulate across the building’s exterior. Those dramatic twists and turns are only possible through ZAHNER’s use of virtual experience, Tom Zahner said.

ZAHNER’s virtual experience platform supports a virtual world in which to create complex curving shapes — including the 308 metal ribbons that form the façade of the Peterson Automobile Museum in Los Angeles — with perfect precision. (Image © ZAHNER/Tex Jernigan)

“The curvy shapes we get involved with, the 3D model, the virtual experience, allow us to take an element and move it throughout a building,” he said. “With old-world techniques, the time it would take to continuously reiterate whether this [shape] would meet structural requirements, material requirements, and manufacturing ability would take forever. But the virtual world lets you move a shaped piece of metal throughout a building [virtually], speeding up the process exponentially.”

Workforce of the Future

Industry Renaissance is shaped by a new body of knowledge. Success in the 20th century was built on foundations that could not be sustained: a limited number of processed raw materials, a limited amount of knowledge, and an economy in silos. Industry of the 21st century faces far more complex challenges that require a multi-discipline, multiscale approach to innovation where most of the work to harmonize product, nature, and life occurs in virtual worlds.

When industry becomes a process of constant invention and reinvention, knowledge and know-how must be available to everyone. Virtual worlds supported by virtual experience platforms — the 21st century equivalents of books and printing presses — give people access to the knowledge, know-how, and collaborative abilities to imagine, test, create, and operate holistic experiences in both the real and virtual worlds. Contrary to popular opinion, people won’t learn less; freed from routine tasks, they will learn more and they will learn by doing. Know-how forged through experience will augment knowledge.

“Working in partnership with machines will enhance people’s ability to coordinate resources and learn in the moment which, in turn, will reset expectations for work and require corporate structures to adapt to the expanding capabilities of human-machine teams,” McKinsey observed in its report, “The Next Era of Human/Machine Partnerships.”

It’s a good description of activities at Yellow River Engineering Consulting, an architectural engineering firm based in Zhengzhou, China, that oversees many international projects.

“In traditional design, multiple layers of human reviews are required to avoid errors, omissions, and collisions,” said Shunqun Yang, leader of the firm’s engineering academy. “However, with the single data source and real-time collaboration possible on our experience platform, a [single] review can identify and resolve problems early and avoid repeated modifications, saving design time and improving design efficiency and product quality.”

As Yellow River Engineering Consulting demonstrates, the leading businesses of tomorrow will be those that empower their workforces and value networks with the knowledge and know-how to deliver new categories of sustainable solutions.

“Knowledge and know-how is the most important factor in our company’s success,” Kastler said. “For fast-growing companies, it’s especially important to make sure all the employees have access to the information they need to do their jobs and, at the same time, [that they] can share the knowledge and know-how that they bring to the company.” Virtual worlds support these goals by serving simultaneously as libraries, workshops, and operating systems. Virtual platforms, meanwhile, help employees to capture and locate relevant knowledge and know-how so that they can re-use, learn from, or experiment on it.

“You can learn new knowledge by reading a book,” NRF’s Loh said. “But in the digital twin, you can learn new knowledge through visualizations, which is a more immersive experience that helps to improve understanding.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that today’s students will have eight to 10 jobs by the time they reach age 38. Virtual experience implies a major shift in how they will learn, especially on the job. “By 2030, workers will create new work infrastructures to acquire the skills and knowledge they will need to execute their work successfully,” the Institute for the Future predicted. “In-the-moment learning will become the modus operandi and the ability to gain new knowledge will be valued higher than the knowledge people already have.”

Virtual experience platforms support virtual worlds that give workers ready access to a company’s knowledge and know-how, supplemented by training from its partners in education, government, fablabs, and innovation hubs.

The Imperative to Transform

Virtual innovation is reshaping industries by disrupting existing business and operating models, creating a wealth of new opportunities for business and society. Like knowledge and know-how, those opportunities are available to all. As Industry Renaissance, and the promise it brings through virtual worlds enabled by virtual experience platforms come into focus, business leaders now have a clear path to creating and profiting from a more prosperous, sustainable future.

This article was written by the staff at Compass magazine and was reprinted with permission from Dassault Systèmes Compass magazine. For more information, visit here .