As the story goes, Confucius, Buddha and Laozi stand over a vat of vinegar. Confucius tastes it and says “sour,” then the Buddha tastes and says “bitter,” and finally Laozi tastes and says “satisfying.” For those unfamiliar, the “Vinegar Tasters” is a traditional subject in Chinese religious painting, allegorically depicting the founders of China’s three major religious and philosophical traditions. While art historians debate its deeper symbolism, the overarching point for those who study it is that it shows that life is fundamentally “good” in its natural state.
Like the painting, I believe manufacturing in the U.S. in 2030 will look good in its natural state, and be satisfying. It will be similar to where we are today, only much more interwoven, nuanced, and richly steeped in our everyday lives.
This may seem uninspiring, but I believe it is very inspiring! As someone working for an emerging technologies company, positioned firmly in Industry 4.0, metal additive manufacturing is already here. Today, customers are in production, making end-use parts via metal 3D printing. In 12 years, I anticipate metal additive manufacturing, alongside other advanced manufacturing technologies, having mass market appeal throughout the global marketplace. To add, U.S. manufacturing has already begun transitioning to a new era of interoperability, information transparency, technical assistance and decentralized decisions. This will only amplify as barriers to entry are broken down by efficiencies and economies of scale.
To make this vision possible, industry-leading companies and influencers are steadily doing the hard work to make sure that quality standards are met or exceeded. Organizations like America Makes, SME, EWI, and the U.S. DoD, to name but a few, are methodically and systemically creating a foundation to define how we bring these new and exciting applications to life safely and carefully.
I don’t see some large industrial conglomerate exclusively revolutionizing the way we make things. I also don’t see someone sitting in a garage right now with the next “it” for manufacturing. It will take a village, with all parties rallying around one another for the betterment of the greater good. And that I find satisfying.
The way many of us perceive manufacturing continues to be a bit outdated. Although not completely gone, the days when masses of people stand along an assembly line are nearly behind us. The thing to remember about manufacturing is that it’s a big job to retool factories and manage the change hurdling at us in the way of automation. Change does not magically occur overnight. We don’t wake up one day and everything is different, even though it may feel like it. I see two major transitions that are likely to continue into 2030 and beyond.
First is smart factory integration. Factories will continue to get more intelligent. Machines, robots, tools, software and people can no longer operate independently. All the different components of the factory will need to work together more closely as our products become increasingly more complex. Decision making at the factory and shop floor level will be less human based and more automated, and those decisions will be based on much more complex and reliable data than ever before.
The second major transition is that people will play a different role. The reality is that the migration toward automation will continue, and probably accelerate in many industries. This means that by 2030, we’ll see even more automation and even fewer people directly involved in actually making the things we use every day. As automation increases, so does the demand for highly skilled technicians and engineers to design and support the automation. This will require a change in our approach as a society. These technicians will need highly technical training as a minimum requirement, rather than just a high school diploma. The human role will be more about supporting the systems that do the work, and less about actually doing the work.
Our ability to harness and benefit from this transition will also be key. If we perceive the transition away from low-skill assembly jobs to highly skilled technical roles as a threat, we’ll struggle. However, if as a society we identify this as an opportunity to move our human power from the simple to highly technical and much more rewarding and better paying roles, the transition to smart factories will benefit us all.
Twelve years ago, managers were starting to work around the clock because the “world got flat” and we were getting a taste for 24×7 emails on our Blackberry PDAs. We were running the plant with a combination of paper log books and spreadsheets. We were implementing MES (manufacturing execution systems) and integrating quality and manufacturing systems. PCs were controlling machines, but they were not commonly connected to IT systems.
Fast forward to the present and we are connected to the world news, home, office and plant equipment 24×7 via our smartphones. We are not just connecting MES to machines and ERP, we are connecting MES to myriad enterprise systems, including engineering and supply chain via portals and control towers. But we still rely on phone calls and email to get everyday business done.
Twelve years from now, in 2030, we should expect even greater connectivity and transparency with open data exchanges beyond our departmental boundaries and into our global value chain partners. Much of today’s human data manipulation between functions and systems must be replaced by standards-based data exchanges with automated data transformation and distribution.
Thanks to these new levels of connectivity between equipment, systems, manufacturers and supply chain, we will have new ways of doing business to meet higher customer demand to either use products like lawn mowers or cars as-a-service or buy highly personalized items.
Between the higher skills needed for this connected future and growing workforce retirements, we can expect a bigger skills gap in 2030. To handle this gap, companies must increase productivity to do more with less personnel and make manufacturing more attractive to the potential workforce.
This means that manufacturing jobs will be more sought after in 2030. There will be more incentives provided by employers, better pay, health plans and work schedules. Manufacturing becomes a high-tech career where employees train collaborative robots and program smart machines to handle the tediously repetitive and unsafe tasks. This is what the Fourth Industrial Revolution looks like to me.
Illustrations by Cheryl Addington
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