From campaign slogans to executive orders, manufacturing has quickly become one of the most politicized topics of our era. While this may help politicians get elected, it will not ignite a manufacturing renaissance in America. What will is technology.
We are lucky to live in the country that is the world leader in innovation, and those of us working in the manufacturing industry — from executives to machinists, to educators and government officials — must start embracing technology and innovation as an asset, not a threat. Specifically, we must leverage American ingenuity in areas like AI/machine learning, computational geometry, CAD technology, and 3D printing.
Nothing provokes a firestorm quite like a discussion on robots and their impact on employment. Bill Gates thinks we should tax them; Elon Musk is starting a new venture to develop a symbiotic digital layer to the human brain.
The conversation we are not having, however, is how existing AI is able to create, not eliminate, jobs. Nowhere is this more evident than in advanced manufacturing where AI can improve the precision and speed of production that maximize the skills of machinist, enhancing their competitiveness on the global market.
Computational geometry, too, is proving integral to advanced manufacturing. Not only is it creating new marketplaces for manufacturers in the cloud, it’s also increasing their production by saving them hours in costly admin time. Complex algorithms (similar to those of Uber or Amazon) are connecting engineers that need parts to the manufacturers that can make them. Not only does this provide a steady stream of work to help keep manufacturers in business, but, by predetermining the manufacturability and price for a part, the algorithms also save manufacturers hours in admin time.
These algorithms, however, would not be so transformative in the field of manufacturing if CAD technology did not exist. CAD technology allows engineers to develop digital designs for parts, which enables the engineers to design more quickly and accurately. Machines can then read CAD files and make more precise parts. More importantly, engineers can upload CAD files online and use companies like mine to find the machine shop in the country that is best equipped to make their part quickly and at the best price. Previously, engineers were mostly forced to work with a local machine shop, which could mean long lead times and, too often, imperfect parts. This accelerates the design process and allow U.S. manufactures and product designers to increase the rate of product innovation.
We are also seeing technological advances related directly to manufacturing. One example you have probably heard a lot about is 3D printing. Much of the media coverage of this sector has focused on affordable home desktop printers, which, while fun to play with, don’t possess the replicability and quality required by most companies. What’s really going to make a difference are the advances in industrial 3D printers that can handle rapid prototyping and small-scale orders without sacrificing quality. This allows for what’s called “just in time” manufacturing, which frees companies from having to place bulk orders and waste money on expensive shelf storage of products. This is one of the reasons General Electric has pursued an aggressive strategy to acquire 3D printing intellectual property and expand it use of this technology across is domestic supply base.
All of these technologies are giving manufacturers more time to do what they do best: make parts. But we cannot fully utilize these technologies if our workforce is not trained with the skills necessary for a high value manufacturing economy. Talk to any machinist in America, and they will tell you that vocational schools in this country are teaching to the kind of manufacturing done in 1967, not 2017.
We must address this skills gap if we do not want to squander the potential technology could bring to manufacturing and, ultimately, the American economy. Currently, there are 325,000 unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector in the United States, and the manufacturing unemployment rate, at 4.2 percent, is lower than the rate for the entire U.S. economy.
To reignite manufacturing in America, we must ignore the political bluster and invest in the technologies that will define the future of manufacturing. Embracing advanced manufacturing means the manufacturing of tomorrow will look very different than the manufacturing done by our parents and grandparents. And that’s a good thing. The new manufacturing class will have to develop new skills to adjust to the technologies enhancing the competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
Randy Altschuler is cofounder and CEO of Xometry. Prior to that, he cofounded and was Executive Chairman of CloudBlue, a provider of recycling services for electronic equipment that was acquired by Ingram Micro in 2013. Before CloudBlue, he was cofounder and CEO of OfficeTiger, a global BPO company acquired by RR Donnelley in 2006. He currently serves on the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland’s (RMI) Board of Directors.