Manufacturing Is Cool Again. Here’s Why.
For much of the 20th century, manufacturing seemed like the industry most capable of grabbing the future with both hands, propelling itself forward, and bringing the rest of the world along for the ride. Innovations that mass-produced the Model-T were only separated from advances in robotics and automation by a few decades, all while manufacturers created new mindsets and approaches to making things, from the Kanban production system to agile manufacturing.
However, in the past few decades, the industry appears to have lost some of its wow factor. Today the general perception is that manufacturing is a risk-averse, mind-numbing activity where nothing important or innovative happens.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there’s never been a better time to rethink manufacturing.
A focus on big issues that matter
Turn your eyes to the sky for a moment and ponder the fact that the heavens and beyond are now regularly being traversed by spacecraft. Of course, there’s no Space X or Blue Origin without manufacturing.
Closer to home, look at the slew of electric vehicles already on the roads and coming to market in regular waves. This variety ranges from innovative new offerings from disrupters like Tesla to well-established players like Ford and Chevrolet. That’s manufacturing in action. Much more than just churning out widgets from a factory – as the popular imagination might have it – the industry is helping create new paradigms around transportation and exploration.
It is also tackling perhaps the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. On this topic, manufacturing is where the rubber hits the road, and not only by turning green ideas into physical objects at scale.
The latest innovation in manufacturing is thanks to the software revolution finally finding an authentic place on the factory floor. Up until now, software has powered manufacturers’ design, engineering, financial, and supply chain operations. But its impact on the physical means of making has been limited. Today, it oversees the hardware you find in a factory, making more of the repetitive work currently done by humans the purview of machines and robots. This software-first approach to manufacturing provides an opportunity to create a fully functional assembly line wherever a product is needed, which helps cut down on long and heavily polluting supply chains.
Another way that local production helps solve climate change is by improving how frequently companies build the type of products their customers want or need for a given market. This solves today’s situation where manufacturers have a factory on the other side of the world and pallets full of products already crossing the ocean on a container ship. But what happens when that particular product is no longer needed? More often than not, especially in the case of consumer products, they simply get thrown out, contributing to our growing landfill crisis.
With local manufacturing, there’s more of a “farm-to-table” quality to operations. The shift creates a slew of opportunities for new workers to understand their close-to-home markets, nimbly adjusting to regional tastes and needs. These rapid, on-demand adjustments suddenly are much easier to make when software oversees hardware.
It also means that local work will have a global scope. The next generation of workers can expect to collaborate with teams located anywhere that learning from process improvements or other discoveries can be gleaned.
Manufacturing’s coolness credentials would be rock solid based solely on the global scale of the problems it’s targeting and the audacious goals in its sights. But what takes it to the next level is how the daily work of manufacturing itself is undergoing a bold reimagining of people’s roles.
Solve problems with empathy and creativity
For people interested in creative problem-solving, manufacturing is the place to be. The next generation of workers likely isn’t interested in performing repetitive tasks, like turning a screw or hammering a panel for hours on end. Fortunately, they don’t have to.
The industrial automation that began in the last century has been taken to a new level in the 21st century through software-first manufacturing. It allows machines to handle these repetitive duties. Utilizing software to oversee all the hardware that legacy manufacturers focused on, intelligent automation can now tackle the assembly and inspection steps that were historically too difficult for machines to carry out.
So, what are the humans doing while the machines operate? Quite simply, while robots are doing what they’re good at, humans are freed up to do the things that they’re good at and uniquely qualified to handle.
On the manufacturing floor, this means employing their creativity and problem-solving skills to come up with innovations around process or product development. They can ask, “How are we currently doing things, and is there a better way?” while bringing their intuition and expertise to bear. For those who like solving puzzles, there are few more satisfying fields. Working with something physical and tangible where they can see the fruits of their labor at the end of the process makes the payoff all the more gratifying.
Humans are also uniquely gifted with empathy – a quality that they can draw upon when providing customer service or support. As increasingly sophisticated products are manufactured and delivered to the marketplace, there will be a growing number of customer-facing manufacturing jobs requiring creative and empathetic individuals looking to solve whatever problem stands in the way of customer success.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that the days of Skynet are a long way away and that robots – even those endowed with intelligence – can’t learn entirely on their own. Instead, someone must tell the robot what to do and train it how to do its job. As a result, many manufacturing jobs will be for “robot wranglers.” Like the conductor of an orchestra or the coach of a sports team, this individual will work with the robots to make sure they are efficiently carrying out the manufacturing tasks at hand.
If we look at other industries, there are some historical echoes. For example, the introduction of ATMs didn’t put bank tellers out of business; it allowed machines to do tasks they were good at – like rapidly counting and doling out dollar bills – while the tellers could focus on more complex financial transactions and customer interactions. Likewise, CAD certainly didn’t make architects or designers obsolete – it just automated portions of their job, so they could devote more of their brainpower towards coming up with creative solutions.
The same trend is happening in manufacturing today. Automation solutions provide a new way to build things, allowing individuals who enter the manufacturing field to call upon creativity, empathy, innovation, and problem-solving skills, just as a daily matter of course. What could be cooler than that?
Now is the time
According to a recent study, manufacturers in the United States need to fill 4 million jobs by 2030 – and more than half of those jobs could go unfilled because of several main culprits, one of which is a misperception about modern manufacturing.
In celebration of Manufacturing Day, with an eye towards growing and supporting the manufacturing industry’s skilled workers, there’s no better time to throw outdated perceptions out the window and realize that manufacturing is evolving in exciting new ways, making it a vital – and yes, even cool – place to work and help shape the future.
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