How the U.S. Can Be a Leader in the Factory of the Future

How the U.S. Can Be a Leader in the Factory of the Future

Jun 15, 2015

By Eric Spiegel, Wall Street Journal

Today’s digital factories have many more computers on the shop floor than pieces of heavy equipment. So despite pervasive misconceptions, today’s shop floor is not your grandfather’s factory. Advanced manufacturing facilities are software and data-driven, and require a highly-skilled workforce that is proficient in technology, engineering and math.

Manufacturing is an industry with tremendous potential in the U.S., and the question for many manufacturers is whether they will move past the old ways of operating and embrace digital manufacturing.

Driven by software, manufacturing’s resurgence is having a profound impact on the entire manufacturing value chain–increasing productivity, efficiency and innovation, speed-to-market, and flexibility.

However, there are several challenges we need to address to enable digital manufacturing in the U.S. to reach its full potential.

A primary roadblock to the widespread adoption of digital manufacturing is the nation’s aging industrial base. According to a recent Morgan Stanley study, the average age of automation infrastructure in the U.S. is the highest it has been since 1938. Nearly 75% of U.S. plants are more than 20 years old. These aging assets cost approximately $20 billion in unplanned downtime.

To bring production facilities into the 21st century, manufacturers must invest in technology and solutions that allow them to seamlessly synthesize digitization through all phases of the manufacturing value chain–from product design to automation processes.

With the benefit of smart data and the emergence of the Internet of Things–the ability of physical objects, such as sensors and devices, to communicate with each other–software can further merge the virtual and physical worlds of production. With software, manufacturers can simulate the entire assembly process, enabling greater flexibility and mass customization, and allowing enhanced variation of products without adding significant cost.

And with Internet of Things, turning massive, unstructured volumes into smart data, takes a unique blend of industry, devices and analytics experience. Manufacturers can see where–and when–breakdowns are likely to occur throughout the automation process, enabling plant operators to evaluate what is happening in their facilities at any time and why it’s happening.

Now, with product performance intelligence applications, we even have this insight across the entire supply chain, collecting feedback on customer usage experience by helping customers easily identify, and react to a product issue within seconds.

But the factories of the future won’t run themselves. In addition to modernizing production facilities and broadly embracing digital manufacturing, there is an urgent need to invest in the future workforce.

A survey from the Business Roundtable and Change the Equation indicates that about 60% of job openings require basic STEM skills, and 42% demand advanced STEM skills–with almost two-thirds of these openings in manufacturing and related fields.

Today’s highly skilled positions in advanced manufacturing, including jobs such as welding, require a solid knowledge base in the STEM disciplines. There is a need for proficiency in data analytics as well as expertise in the specialties of mechanical, computer, electronic, software control and system design engineering.

And programs such as apprenticeships and co-ops–driven by public-private partnerships–can help substantively address the nation’s skills gap and prepare workers for highly-skilled advanced manufacturing jobs.

The future of manufacturing is here. With the U.S. generating 70% of software for industry, we have an opportunity to lead the world in pioneering the digital, connected factory. To do so, we’ll need state-of-the-art factories operated by the world’s most skilled workers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *