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Engineering in America

Smart Manufacturing Is Vital to the American Economy

Photo: Courtesy of Clark Young

Twelve million Americans support themselves and their families with jobs in manufacturing. Another 60 million jobs are made possible by this manufacturing core according to the Council on Competitiveness. That’s a large part of the economy, so remaining competitive in the global manufacturing market is essential to national interests. But given the high standard of living in the United States, competing on the basis of low-cost labor alone is not possible. So how do today’s manufacturers compete? They use innovation and a culture of continuous improvement, two hallmarks of the American workforce.

Manufacturers account for 75 percent of the non-government research and development in the United States, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. They make this investment because they know the pace of innovation will define success in the long run, avoiding commoditization of their products.

Keeping up with changing tech

Smart manufacturing puts innovation to work and enables much of today’s productivity throughout the value chain. Smart manufacturing leverages rapid advances in information and communications technologies to digitize and connect every part of a manufacturing enterprise. This optimizes production and increases global competitiveness.

By digitally simulating the manufacturing process and supply network, manufacturers can design the most efficient processes and delivery channels, reducing time to market. Once installed on the manufacturing plant floor, smart, connected equipment can start up twice as fast as standalone machines and cut unplanned downtime in half. Experts located hundreds of miles from an oil well or bakery can warn local technicians if there’s an impending problem. 

These smart, connected manufacturing systems can be designed for safety by creating multiple layers of protection. The same can be done for security with a “defense in depth” approach, beginning at the device and extending throughout the network.

Consider an automobile or aspirin plant. After the auto or aspirin bottle leaves the plant, each is tracked on its global journey to the dealer showroom or pharmacy shelf. The digital infrastructure to convey this information is equally important as the highway travelled by the truck carrying the product.

Staying ahead of the game

On a global level, America still contributes one-sixth of the total worldwide manufacturing output. The jobs and the standard of living enabled by manufacturing only survive in a large country such as the United States if we continue to innovate, evolve our infrastructure and, most importantly, attract and develop a skilled workforce. 

The first task is to attract students to the business of making things. According to a Deloitte study, it is estimated that 600,000 positions in American industrial companies go unfilled today because the right talent cannot be found. Fortunately, the news is getting out that advanced manufacturing combines high-tech with making things and provides high-paying jobs. Real-time operating systems and software, fault-tolerant control, cloud platforms and analytics all play important roles in contemporary manufacturing processes.

Keeping sharp

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills will become even more important as demand for tedious, unskilled labor decreases. These skills must be refreshed constantly over a career that may last 40 years or more to stay current with new technology and keep problem-solving skills sharp. As supply chains become disaggregated, so do sources of talent. The combination of internal investment in research and development and partnering with outside sources of expertise will often represent the most effective path to get innovation to market, according to a study by the World Economic Forum.

The benefits of globally competitive smart manufacturing are hard to overestimate. The multipliers of additional jobs created, new “adjacent” businesses started and even national security are powerful motivators.

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