Metaverse to usher in golden era of innovation
Domestic and foreign firms explore industrial applications in many fields
Discussion of the tech buzzword "metaverse" has been going on for some time, with the focus chiefly on its application in virtual games, online retail and social media. But now, the industrial metaverse has become the latest talk of the town, as it is seen as one of the most promising ways to revolutionize manufacturing in the years to come, experts said.
The trend bears particular importance as countries around the world are reemphasizing their ambitions to upgrade manufacturing — pillars of a nation's economic clout. And the potential of metaverse in accelerating industrial upgrade is attracting companies to establish a beachhead in the new technological frontier, they added.
Industrial metaverse loosely refers to a virtual world where real machines and factories, buildings, transportation, grids, and other industrial objects and systems are mirrored digitally with technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, they said.
Li Bohu, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said industrial metaverse is now one of the most oft-heard technological themes, as it has become a new carrier for the integration of digital economy and real economy.
"The industrial application of metaverse can create a new mode of smart manufacturing that features interaction between virtual and real worlds, enhances industrial value, and constructs a new ecology of industrial digitalization," Li said.
Yu Jianing, co-author of the book The Rise of the Metaverse and principal of Huobi University, an educational and research institution focusing on technologies such as blockchain, said, "The biggest potential for the metaverse lies in its industrial use."
Software developers, for instance, will simulate every aspect of manufacturing operations in a digital twin factory, a key form of the industrial metaverse, where engineers and designers worldwide can collaborate in real time, said Yu.
By simulating the feasibility of tasks in the industrial metaverse, problems can be identified, analyzed and quickly resolved, and then operating costs can be greatly reduced and efficiency boosted when this is implemented in reality, Yu added.
His views were echoed by Hu Houkun, the rotating chairman of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, who said that compared with consumer-oriented applications, metaverse has larger value in its industrial use.
Industrial metaverse is expected to drive the market size of global smart manufacturing to exceed $540 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 15.35 percent from 2021 to 2025, said market research company TrendForce.
This growth can primarily be attributed to several factors. First, industrial applications take place in closed environments, and companies that utilize such applications have generally made good progress in terms of digital transformation, market intelligence provider Trend-Force said.
Furthermore, by utilizing simulation technologies, companies are able to significantly reduce their labor costs, project time and wasted resources, TrendForce added.
The Chinese government, which is well aware of the trend, is moving quickly to roll out favorable policies. Last month, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology jointly released a plan for the years 2022-26 with several other ministries to integrate VR technology with industrial applications.
Though it did not explicitly mention metaverse, the plan called for more efforts to create fundamental technologies that support immersive AR, VR and mixed reality experiences, all of which are aspects of metaverse.
The plan aims to grow the market size of China's VR industry beyond 350 billion yuan ($50.4 billion) by 2026, by which time it intends to have cultivated more than 100 enterprises with strong innovative ability and industrial influence.
The value of the VR market in China had exceeded 100 billion yuan in 2021, according to market consulting firm CCID Consulting.
Jia Shanshan, executive vice-general manager of the electronic information industry research center at CCID Consulting, said VR application is still dominated by consumer-oriented use such as in games and education. But industrial applications such as in manufacturing and medical care have also grown rapidly with the development of online economy over the past two years.
In a recent virtual reality conference in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, Wang Jiangping, vice-minister of industry and information technology, said, "The ministry will seize the window of opportunity of the VR industry to promote its integration with the real economy."
China currently has more than 10,000 enterprises engaged in VR-related business, the ministry said, adding that it will step up its push to promote typical, replicable industrial VR applications.
He Chao, secretary-general of the metaverse industry committee at the China Mobile Communications Association, said China highly values the role of metaverse in upgrading the real economy.
Controversies around metaverse still exist, but it is certain that Chinese companies will not miss out on the crucial technological shift it entails, He said.
Established tech companies such as Lenovo, Huawei, HTC, Tencent and Alibaba, as well as numerous startups, are scrambling to explore the application of industrial metaverse, which is still in its infancy, in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, tourism and automobiles.
Tencent, for example, is building an early version of a digital twin factory with Ruitai Masteel New Materials Technology Co Ltd that carries out digital simulation and virtual testing before processing real products.
Lenovo also said earlier this year that it will spend more than 100 billion yuan over the next five years on research and development of metaverse and other technologies, as it shifts from hardware to high-tech services.
Rui Yong, Lenovo's CTO, said the company offers a diverse product portfolio of metaverse, including its latest ThinkReality VRX, an all-in-one virtual reality headset for enterprise applications.
From improving efficiency in employee training and virtual collaboration to expanding design and engineering tasks in 3D, VR and AR technologies are becoming more important than ever for businesses to enable hybrid workers to do more, Lenovo said, adding that it also develops end-to-end solutions tailored for different industries.
"Moving forward, Lenovo is willing to build an open metaverse ecosystem, along with like-minded industry partners," Rui said.
Foreign companies are also actively exploring the application of industrial metaverse in China.
German industrial giant Siemens is building a digital twin factory in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.
The entire factory is simulated with a digital twin, which optimizes the building, and detects and mitigates potential problems at an early stage, according to Siemens.
Planning errors, both small and big, which in the past could have cost a lot of money and time, are completely avoided. "And we continue to use the power of simulation during operations. The true benefit of this digital plant is that manufacturing capacity has increased by 200 percent and productivity by 20 percent," Siemens added.
Tom Mainelli, who manages the device & consumer research group at market research company International Data Corp, said: "Manufacturing companies that aren't at the very least experimenting with AR and VR today are at risk of falling behind in the near future. AR and VR will not only help manufacturers digitally transform their businesses, but also be key to recruiting, onboarding, and upskilling their workforces in the future."
Yu, the co-author of the book on metaverse, said: "With rapid technological development, the real economy will embrace metaverse, which will bring profound economic changes and revolutionize industrial upgrading. The next decade will be a golden period for development of metaverse."