American manufacturing isn't dead, it's evolving

 

What could be more American than manufacturing – that solid hum that kept America moving forward for so many years? Manufacturing was practically synonymous with innovation for most of the 20th century. But what about now? We know manufacturing’s legacy in America, and fear the drastic changes that have rocked this sector in recent years. The general feeling is that manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, and they’re never coming back.

Well that may be true – but it begs the question, is that a bad thing?

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Today innovation is linked with technology, and America has pivoted to accept that technology is our new economic legacy, but as it stands, this is true only in the mind of the American psyche, rather than reality. Manufacturing remains an important cornerstone of the American economy and while low-paying manufacturing jobs continue to be outsourced, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that manufacturing is dead, or dying. It does however signify that manufacturing is changing, and it’s changing at a pace that is challenging for us to keep up with.

On June 21, President Obama announced a coalition to help rejuvenate the U.S. manufacturing industry by bolstering innovation in "smart manufacturing." In the president’s own words, "No country can match our competitiveness in cutting-edge manufacturing. No country is home to more entrepreneurs or more supercomputing.  No country has done more to build a culture of making and tinkering, and entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and of innovation and invention.”

The manufacturing sector plays an important role in the health of the U.S. economy. This may be the one fact upon which both ends of the political spectrum, conservative to liberal, can agree. How to solve manufacturing’s problems, though, is still up for debate. The challenges may seem daunting, from loss of jobs and trouble recruiting skilled workers to competition from low-cost emerging nations, and customers who expect highly personalized products—delivered next day.

This Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition places emphases on the need to "radically improve" manufacturing productivity by embracing smart sensor/digital technologies that save energy, reduce waste, and streamline manufacturing processes. This kind of legacy overhaul for an entire sector requires more than just new machinery – it urges manufacturers to seek technology partners with flexible solutions that can help them build a technology infrastructure that is able to adapt to new innovations and provide value when advanced machinery and robotics come to the factory floor.

Are these challenges going to prove too much for the weary U.S. manufacturing sector? The wounds from the past recession have not completely healed, making manufacturers nervous about new ventures. Images of plant closings leaving thousands jobless and entire towns shriveling up with no economic base are like bad dreams that linger and haunt. Those families who lost jobs, pensions, homes, and faith in U.S. manufacturing may be reluctant to accept that smart technology is the miracle cure-all that some prophesize. Yet, this tsunami wave of digital disruption that is due to hit manufacturing is gaining momentum. The Internet of Things, data science, and digital connectivity promise to reinvent manufacturing processes. The impact will be staggering and game-changing, just as it was for media, photography, travel, music, and telecommunication industries when they were hit with the digital wave.

Manufacturing is smarter, science-driven, data-powered. Today technology and innovation are closely linked to the future of manufacturing. Technology is helping manufacturers reinvent the shop floor processes, making operations more efficient and responsive to customer demands. No longer do manufacturers simply mass produce commodity products. Today manufacturers collaborate with customers, configuration tools allow for customizations, and modular designs allow for assemble-on-demand workflows. Dynamic analytics allow manufacturers to understand bottom line impact as well as predict demand and accurately forecast resources needed to fulfill the needs of a global market.

The prognosis is positive. Modern manufacturing is smart, agile, proactive, and highly efficient. It’s not just the hardware and software that has changed. There is a new mindset that comes with this new era in manufacturing. In order to remain relevant in today’s fast changing market conditions, manufacturers have learned they must be alert to new trends, be willing to step up to the challenge, and adopt innovation with full enthusiasm. They have to think outside of the box and outside of the four walls of a plant. Technology provides the infusion of adrenalin, manufacturers need. Technology provides the inspiration and optimism needed in order to achieve full recovery.

Scholl is the president of Infor, a business software company for manufacturing.