The evolution of manufacturing is at a transitional phase as new technologies revolutionize production processes and globalization continues to alter the landscape. In the United States, smart manufacturing combines the physical and virtual worlds to let manufacturers innovate products, boost productivity and maximize their resources.
The smart manufacturing concept is comprised of any elements that let manufacturers achieve shorter time-to-market through efficient innovation and production cycles, as well as those that provide enhanced flexibility using more data to individualize mass production.
U.S. manufacturers are gearing up to meet the diversity of world markets, which demand faster deliveries, ever-changing designs and better product support. Large manufacturers are starting to favor a regional approach, building products close to the customers. Given the large North American market, there’s much potential for U.S. manufacturing to regain its lost manufacturing strength. Rising costs in overseas labor markets and increases in transportation costs are also factors behind this potential growth.
Rebuilding America’s manufacturing base won’t be easy. U.S. companies face a shortage of highly skilled, trained workers, an uncertain regulatory landscape, heightened cyber threats, and ongoing pressure to control costs and increase productivity.
To help U.S. manufacturers understand this changing landscape, Siemens sponsored a survey, Smart Manufacturing Research: Opportunities for Growth & Competitiveness, early this year. The results showed a lot of optimism surrounding the manufacturing environment in North America, but it also showed some areas of concern.
Sixty percent of respondents are optimistic about U.S. manufacturing in general, and 74% are optimistic about their company’s five-year outlook. Key reasons for optimism are the potential improvements of advanced manufacturing technologies such as virtual prototyping; software-driven product and process planning; rapid jumps in productivity; and plant and equipment upgrades that reduce the cost of expensive inputs.
Workforce issues were the respondents’ primary concerns. Nearly half, 41%, cited attracting and retaining skilled workers as a top concern, and 28% are concerned about knowledge transfer as employees leave.
Taking action to alleviate these problems is not easy. Less than 30% have expanded recruitment and/or training programs for skilled workers in the past 24 months.
“America has a training gap,” says Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens USA. “I know it’s more common to say that we have a skills gap, at a time when American industry is struggling to fill thousands of open positions. But in truth, it’s not a skills gap—it’s a training gap. Until we put the burden on those who train rather than those who need to be trained, we’ll never solve it.”
Adequate skills training is essential as computer-controlled equipment and advanced software speed processes and improve efficiency levels. Operators need to understand equipment and respond quickly and correctly when problems arise. Keeping state of the art systems running efficiently is no simple task.
“It’s a challenge because manufacturing has become knowledge work,” says Helmuth Ludwig, CEO of Siemens Industry Sector North America. “The idea that manufacturing is about brawn over brains, that it is unconnected to innovation and a low-value-added commodity activity that requires low skill workers that can easily be sourced from anywhere in the world, no longer reflects current reality.”
Factories that make advanced goods such as cars, aircraft engines, gas turbines, semiconductors, flat panel displays and medical devices are intensely complex. They require highly-skilled employees who can work with sophisticated machines that include mechanical and electronic elements as well as sophisticated software. All these elements are highly integrated within networked facilities designed to maximize production with minimal downtime. If employees are not trained in the latest technologies used in their facilities, the advantages of expensive equipment will not be fully realized.
“What’s different today is that we have additional opportunities to drive productivity beyond those traditionally driven through lean continuous improvement,” Ludwig says. “In short, at the company and plant level, we are seeing tremendous improvement potentials in productivity and efficiency thanks to software technology.”
Manufacturers are increasingly integrating their control systems with Intranets that are themselves connected to the Internet. Ethernet has become the network of choice in most modern production facilities. This increased integration lets decision-makers in the respective companies receive highly valuable production data in real-time and in highly usable forms.
Unfortunately, it also makes it easier for someone to inject malicious code into a control system from thousands of miles away. As more notebooks, tablets and even smart phones see use in factories, the potential for problems from viruses is more pronounced. If malware enters the production line, the plant’s operations could be severely disrupted. Production losses, damage to customer relationships or even theft of intellectual property are a few of the consequences.
Nearly two in three respondents, 64%, have taken some action to protect their security systems against cyber attacks. Most have turned to vendors and updated their software according to recommendations or followed vendor security guidelines. Only one in five has invested in modern equipment and only one in ten has used cyber security consulting services. Most respondents agree with industry analysts that layering different solutions to provide defense in depth is the best way to prevent malware from causing problems.
While respondents are spending much of their time looking at technical challenges and manpower issues, those aren’t their only concerns. The near-term outlook for U.S. manufacturing includes concern about taxes, regulations, the trade imbalance and other factors that manufacturing leaders can’t directly control.
While there are challenges for the U.S., the survey showed a fair amount of good news. The trend to leverage closer suppliers is benefiting the U.S. manufacturing sector, which should help in the reshoring effort. Among companies that relocated their supply chains in the past 12 months, 85% reported relocating them to the U.S.
The other good news is that the value of manufacturing as a contributor to GDP is expected to grow. Although few expect a huge upswing in the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., those employed within the sector should see a more stable long-term outlook. This survey shows that the U.S. manufacturing sector is healthier and wealthier than it has been in the past few decades.
Article’s Source: This article is based on a special report, titled “Smart Manufacturing and Competitiveness: How technology-driven productivity improvement is shaping the future of U.S. industry,” written by Industry Week (IW) Custom Research, in cooperation with Siemens Industry, Inc. The report – based on a survey of 388 manufacturing executives – examines which challenges manufacturers are most worried about and what they are doing to address them. Report dated June 2013.Have an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>