Manufacturing makes the modern world possible, from the food we eat to the devices we use to communicate. But just as our technology evolves, so too does the approach to making it.
But, manufacturing encompasses multiple technologies and disciplines -- and change occurs in all of them. Here are the key trends in manufacturing today and how they’re shaping the factories, supply chains and workforce of tomorrow.
By some estimates, the world is currently in the throes of its fourth industrial revolution -- one defined by interconnectedness, decentralization, automation and analytics.
“It's basically the deployment of what a lot of people are calling ‘smart factories,’” says Mike Demaline, director of Industry and Strategic Partnerships at Georgia Tech Professional Education.
Of course a smart, data-driven factory doesn’t thrive in isolation. Large firms exist as part of the greater manufacturing ecosystem and depend on numerous small and mid-size companies. Associate Director of the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Timothy Israel believes that one of the most significant shifts in manufacturing is the ubiquitous implementation of new technologies.
“I think the most important trend is the adoption of technology throughout the manufacturing supply chain,” Israel says. “It’s industry 4.0, the internet of things, the whole connection of the plant floor, automation and the related cyber security issues.”
So you might think of Industry 4.0 as the meta-trend in modern manufacturing. It entails all of the subsequent trends on our list.
You can’t have a smart factory without data -- and thanks to the information generated by the ever-expanding sensory capabilities of manufacturing technology, a smart factory has more data about its processes than ever before.
According to Chris Luettgen, Professor of the Practice and Associate Director at Georgia Institute of Technology, the advantages of big data analytics go well beyond the ability to troubleshoot problems.
“When there’s trouble, as engineers, we tend to look at the data and try to find where things got out of control. Big data analytics and predictive process control allow us to manage our process so we never get out of control. Therefore, we could actually use that data every second.”
When combined with sophisticated statistics and processing techniques, the vast amounts of collected information allows smart factories to identify problems in a production process well before a catastrophe or even a minor error occurs.
Let’s face it, when most of us think about the future of manufacturing, we think about robots. We may even cling to the notion of machines replacing all the human workers in a given factory. But while automation is indeed a strong trend in manufacturing, such a dystopian vision remains a piece of science fiction.
“I would say that the idea of robots taking our jobs was very much overblown,” says Timothy Israel. “Now, the robots are being put in to help with very manual, repetitive processes. Small scale cobots are helping protect the worker from repetitive motion injuries and things like that.”
Cobots -- or collaborative robots -- work alongside human workers. Like all automated systems, they require skilled technicians.
“The jobs have shifted,” Israel says. “They're still there, but now it's a question of ‘Who works on the robots? Who are the maintenance folks who can keep them running well? Who can program them?’”
These requirements produce higher skilled and better paying jobs to manage the automated systems, sensors and integrated systems that define the smart factory. As a result, many companies are choosing to upskill and reskill existing employees, rather than depend on layoffs and new hires.
The manufacturing workforce is changing on multiple fronts. Not only are jobs becoming more skilled, but an aging and highly experienced generation of workers -- especially manufacturing engineers -- continue to slip into retirement.
With all that employee wisdom ready to walk out the door, companies are moving very fast to capture it. To bolster manufacturing’s future, companies have to appeal to the millennial and post-millennial workforce. Part of the challenge is to promote the changing face of the manufacturing industry. The technology is increasingly advanced, the jobs are skilled and the pay is better.
In redefining manufacturing for new generations of workers, it’s also essential to dispel the misconception that U.S. manufacturing jobs are all going overseas.
Mike Demaline points out that, for years, many commentators believed that U.S. manufacturers simply couldn’t compete in the global market due to heightened costs. This view, he stresses, simply isn't true anymore.
“That's why you see so much manufacturing coming back into the county right now,” Demaline says, “because with the use of automation, with the use of technology, with the broad deployment of sensors, the overall cost of manufacturing has declined greatly. And we're able to be much more flexible and do some things that we weren't able to do in the past.”
What does the future hold for manufacturing? For starters, automation will continue to improve the efficiency of the supply chain.
According to Demaline, cost reductions and increases in computational and sensor capabilities are enabling new generations of autonomous hardware. Plus, the advent of self-driving vehicles in coming years will revolutionize the transport of materials.
Additive Manufacturing -- or 3D printing -- also promises to improve manufacturing efficiency. Instead of subtracting raw materials into required parts through milling or grinding, it allows manufacturers’ increasing ability to assemble three dimensional slices of their intended product.
GTPE has several professional education offerings to enable manufacturing professionals and employers to prepare for success in the manufacturing environment of tomorrow. We offer courses, a Certificate in Manufacturing Leadership, and a Professional Master's in Manufacturing Leadership.
Written by Robert Lamb