Manufacturing plant in a chasm

Bridging the Manufacturing Chasm

Oct. 18, 2022
Digital solutions bring with them no shortage of hype, but when will that translate into widespread adoption?

It was hard to walk more than a few feet at September’s IMTS Show in Chicago without experiencing the impact of digital transformation. From new product offerings to connected systems to the hundreds of informational sessions during that week, everyone was talking about the new digital tools and strategies that are transforming the manufacturing landscape.

Software gives us new insights on the condition of our plant. Additive manufacturing adds a new dimension to product development and parts suppliers. The digital twin allows designers to build a replica of the operational model and test it in a virtual world before it is deployed online. Artificial intelligence can make the right decisions easier to find and implement, saving time and money. The push for sustainability defines energy as a manageable commodity, and then looks at alternative fuels and materials to pursue environmental improvement without sacrificing productivity.

They all are great solutions—all available today, all tested, all capable of fulfilling most of the hype around their deployment. Now all that is needed is for manufacturers to adopt them.

That is proving to be a slower process than anyone might have expected. Here’s a preview of this year’s Machine Design Salary & Career Survey, which will be released online in November: of all of these solutions, 3D printing leads in deployment among survey respondents…at just 30%.

In a list of 16 emerging technologies, only 3D printing and software reliability have been embraced by as many as one in four design and operations leaders as an impactful technology today. The use of 5G was cited by just 22% of respondents. IoT, machine learning and sensor integration failed to tick above 20%. Augmented reality and the coming concept of the metaverse failed to make any sort of an impact.  

Some might be tempted to call this a technology gap between the available technology and its implementation. When 80% of your potential customers don’t yet consider your solution to be part of their solution, that’s not a gap; it’s a chasm.

We have a similar yawning crevice when talking about finding the workers needed to implement this technology. We have talked about a “skills gap” for decades. It now is a skills chasm. In the Machine Design survey, 79% of respondents say there is an engineer shortage, and 71.4% are struggling to find engineers.

Taken individually, these technologies are transformative in their own right. Taken as a connected system of technologies, as many industry leaders now are touting, the potential improvements in safety, profitability, productivity, sustainability and quality represent a generational opportunity to change the way we make everything we use. It is a true Industrial Revolution that does not need a number to define it.

That will never happen until and unless we build a bridge across this knowledge chasm. We must connect the practical uses of this technology with the end-users. We have to build on the foundations important to them by answering the question they ask: “How will this make my operation better?”

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