As Henry Ford would doubtless confirm were he alive today, making things is hard work. It's not just a case of bringing together the three “M's” - materials, machinery and manpower – to produce goods that people want to buy. Everything must be planned, coordinated and optimized. Markets must be found, new products developed and finished goods distributed. In every field competitors constantly seek ways to gain even the smallest advantage to secure their position and grow their business. And unlike businesses that compete in only one location, manufacturers battle in a global marketplace.
Today's Most Pressing Challenges
Every manager in the manufacturing industry could probably list a dozen challenges they face now or can see coming. There are however some common themes:
The Skills Gap
Let's take a closer look.
The manufacturing workforce is aging and many workers are approaching retirement. That's a massive looming problem for every manufacturer. Where will the next generation of welders, machinists and electricians come from? And it's not just skilled trades, engineers and even production workers are all in short supply. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that over the next decade 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled.
Make manufacturing more attractive so factories become places people want to work.
Identify and develop talented people already in the business.
Invest in technology for some of the highly skilled work. Robotic welding, for example.
Squeezing even more from every hour of labor, watt of energy and pound of raw materials is what has given us some of the highest living standards in the world. Since 2007, the productivity in the US has grown more slowly than at almost any period since WWII, and that's a huge problem. Without productivity growth our economy stagnates and it becomes harder to afford all the services we want.
How do we solve this?
Lean manufacturing, to squeeze out waste and improve quality.
Innovate new products that solve customer's problems.
Superior design tools and automation like robotics and CNC machine tools.
Additive manufacturing, traceability systems, laser processing, the Internet of Things (IoT.) These are just a few of the tools becoming available to manufacturers. That's the good news. The challenge is how best to take advantage of them. Manufacturers must lift their eyes from their current problems to first learn about these new technologies, and then figure out how best to use them.
The other side of the coin: Opportunities
Manufacturing has always been hard. Some give up in the face of challenges while others see them as opportunities. Only investing in people and technology will put a manufacturer on the path to prosperity. It's not easy, but didn't JFK say something about choosing to do things because they are hard?