Aug 07 2014

Why Tech Is the Future of Manufacturing, Not the End of It

More manufacturers are figuring out how to leverage IT to improve their businesses.

Things just aren’t the same for U.S. manufacturing.

Thanks to the rise of China as a manufacturing powerhouse and the efficiencies made possible with advanced technology, traditional factory jobs have seen a sharp decline in the United States. Bloomberg Businessweek crystallized the sea change that’s taken place in the sector by comparing a snapshot of the average number of people working in manufacturing four decades ago with today:

In 1970, more than a quarter of U.S. employees worked in manufacturing. By 2010, only one in 10 did.

Plenty of worst-case scenarios have predicted that robots will take over manufacturing completely. And there are fears that 3D printing, which allows people to create their own products and goods, will take an even larger toll on the future health of manufacturing.

But these doomsday scenarios are a bit premature. While it’s true that manufacturing is being forced to adapt as technology makes some roles and functions redundant, that’s essentially the way it’s always been. After all, the rise of the automobile rendered horse-and-carriage drivers irrelevant.

In Grimes, Iowa, Ryko Solutions, a car-wash bay manufacturer, is taking advantage of advanced technology to improve its operations. The company is using sensors and robotics to grow its business of creating automated car washes, according to a report from The Des Moines Register:

Automated liquid dispensers measure out just the right amount of enzymes to get rid of bugs or additives that break down salt, depending on what part of the world the cleaning bay is headed. And sensors gently guide large sponge-like equipment across your vehicle, regardless of whether it's a Mini-Cooper or a King Cab pickup truck.

Technology has helped the company grow its employment — about 30 percent to nearly 500 workers over three years — and revenue has about doubled to $125 million over four years, said L'Heureux, 58, who has led the operation since he joined Ryko in 2011.

In order to work in the modern manufacturing world, workers must be adept at using complex computing systems and high-end IT. Software and automation will be doing much of the heavy lifting in ways that weren’t possible in the ’70s.

“Many think it's the Henry Ford assembly line,” said Grace Swanson, Accumold's vice president of human capital, in the Register story. “Our folks are wearing clean-room gowns and work with very high-tech robotics and a lot of cameras.”

Institutionalizing Innovation in Manufacturing

One major initiative to grow the pool of skilled high-tech workers that the modern manufacturing industry needs involves the creation of innovation hubs. The Obama administration is looking to create a nationwide network of 45 Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, according to an article from Techonomy.

These institutes are public–private partnerships that will strive to leverage the resources and expertise of private industry, universities and the federal government to strengthen and advance the use of technology in the manufacturing industry. Institutes have been established in Detroit and Chicago, and there are plans to open four more in 2014.

Proto Labs CEO Vicki Holt is already singing the praises of the initiative: “The future of our industry lies in the integration of hardware and advanced software to maximize the efficiency, quality and affordability of manufacturing processes,” Holt said in the Techonomy article. “Leveraging the innovation of the American software community is the key to making American manufacturing competitive once again.”


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