UpFront: What is Advanced Manufacturing?
By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief
I hear that question a lot these days as more people use those two words together.
At first blush, it’s an easy way to distinguish (dirty, dull, dangerous) old manufacturing from new manufacturing, because there are such sweeping differences. But it’s not just that new manufacturing is creative, high-tech, clean and safe.
It’s so much more phenomenal than that.
Imagine a dreamy place where there are big, clean machines lined up in a sparkling white factory. Rods of highly-engineered materials go in on a pallet, are chiseled to perfection in minutes by high-precision multitasking machines—or, say, printed out on 3D machines—and complete, highly finished parts glide out the back end and are swiftly packed into boxes by robots that can hear, feel and think. These factories, which can run around the clock, are programmed, controlled and monitored by advanced computer software. Or, more specifically, by the people who use the software.
This is the new advanced manufacturing world we are moving towards quickly, and in the upcoming August issue of Manufacturing Engineering, you can read about an array of technologies that are enabling this high-tech future right now. This new machining and computer technology is quickly leveling the playing field when it comes to global cost competition, and it’s a major reason why manufacturing is coming home. (It’s so great to see you again!)
That’s also backed up in a report on “Advanced Manufacturing Techniques,” released this week by the National Center for the Middle Market and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Their research found that 47% of the nation’s 33,000 middle market manufacturers, which it defined as having revenues between $10 million and $1 billion, “currently leverage advanced manufacturing techniques” and that they have “experienced a 20 percent profitability increase over the last five years.” The most frequently cited advanced technologies were automation (68%), computer technologies (62%), process technologies (59%) and information technologies (57%).
Of course, all this advanced manufacturing requires fewer people than the old way. But that’s still good for the economy. Because those fewer employees need to be highly skilled, which should translate into higher pay, and there are lots of spin-off benefits to keeping the work here.
But, again, it’s fewer, more high-tech jobs. (These are the ones that manufacturers are struggling to fill these days.)
All of which gets me to the latest Institute for Supply Management Report on Business. It reported that manufacturing picked up again in June and the economy registered its 49th straight month of growth. However, the employment index registered 48.7%, a decrease of 1.4 percentage points. Manufacturing employment contracted for the first time since September 2009, when the index registered 47.%.
Is this bad news? For would-be employees, it probably is. But it may not be bad news for the manufacturing sector, and it doesn’t mean that the manufacturing renaissance we’ve all been hearing about is a bust either (as some people have been opining). It just means times have changed.
Welcome to the uber-productive, high-tech era of advanced manufacturing.
This article was first published in the August 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.