How Technology Is Changing Manufacturing and its Workforce

Nora Leary

How Technology is Changing Manufacturing and its WorkforceManufacturing accounts for a whopping $2.17 trillion of the U.S. economy, and despite popular belief, it is actually on the rise, up by more than 27 percent from just 2009. This industry has certainly seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years. From offshoring to job cuts, manufacturing has been at the whim of economic and international trends. The latest movement involves technological advancements and the impact these advancements have on factories and workforce demographics.

Many changes in the manufacturing industry have come from consumer demand. Consumers want things faster and better, personalized and unique, and newer than last year or even last quarter. Therefore, manufacturers have had to find a way to keep up not only with the demand for products but also with finding skilled workers to make these products.

New technological advances in manufacturing have helped to better meet consumer demand. With the implementation of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), the manufacturing industry became incredibly more efficient. A CMMS tracks system maintenance, inspections and breakdowns, making system disruptions smaller and even obsolete. Instead of manually tracking problems or changes on a piece of paper, a CMMS handles all of this remotely, increasing productivity. The benefits include fewer repairs, lower maintenance costs, a streamlined workforce, and historical data and trend reports.

Impact of the IoT and Big Data

CMMS technology also connects devices remotely, allowing them to "talk" to each other. Often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), it connects factories to the Internet, enabling automation and remote monitoring. Rather than a manual check, the IoT allows systems to be connected to each other and essentially monitor each other's process.

With this connection, plants can easily collect and aggregate big data, or a mass of information concerning their systems. This information can be measured and analyzed to increase productivity and efficiency. The IoT helps manufacturers work better by getting products to consumers faster.

Products are Becoming Smart

Consumers now demand products that are intelligent, responsive and connected, i.e., "smart." Terms such as "smart lighting," "connected cars" and "wearable technology" are examples of these products. Consumers use this type of technology to track a variety of aspects in their daily lives, from what they eat to how much they exercise.

As products become smarter, manufacturers not only must be able to mass produce this technology but also keep up with the technological evolution of the products, as they are continually improved. This essentially changes the business model of manufacturing and the required skillset of workers. Products are no longer simply assembly-line created objects; they require specialized talent to be produced on a large scale.

What's Happening to the Workforce?

As exciting as these technological advancements are, they have a profound impact on the manufacturing workforce. Some 80 percent of manufacturers say they have a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled or highly skilled positions. In the next decade, it is expected that as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs will be unfulfilled due to this skills gap.

For example, 3-D printing is becoming cheaper, and less time and material are required to produce a complex design. These types of products will not require an assembly line but instead a skilled engineer to design and manufacture shapes not producible in a factory. It's easy to see how manufacturing is changing from what was once a blue-collar workforce to a highly trained white-collar profession.

Today's manufacturing employee is not only highly skilled but highly paid, earning about 24 percent more annually than the average U.S. worker. Technology is helping to make these jobs more lucrative than before.

Closing the Gap

A variety of ways to close the skills gap has been proposed, such as encouraging science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies in schools; changing the stigma surrounding manufacturing jobs; and training internal workers to prepare them for more complex jobs.

How this gap will be closed is still unknown. Most likely a combination of efforts will prove successful. What is known is how technology is making this industry completely different than it was 10 to 20 years ago.

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About the Author

Nora Leary is a consultant to MicroMain, a CMMS and CAFM software provider.