After decades in the backwaters of popular culture and commerce, U.S. manufacturing is undergoing something of a renaissance. It's also entering a period of rapid technological change that has its own name: advanced manufacturing. Whether people can acquire enough advanced skills to keep pace is a question of great urgency.
Manufacturing was the golden child that almost singlehandedly led North America out of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Lately, it has been the feel-good focus of a resurgent nationalism; a welcome contrast to far less noble variations such as jingoism and, even worse, anti-immigrant prejudice. "Onshoring," "reshoring" and "insourcing" all mean the same thing: bringing back to America the production that has so infamously been shipped out to Latin America and Asia for four decades. With the rising middle class in China demanding higher wages and energy costs driving the cost of ocean shipping to unprecedented levels, the numbers are turning around. America is becoming one of the best places to locate production, especially for goods destined for local markets.
The "Made in America" label will provide more than a slogan for bringing jobs back to these shores. It will again become synonymous with quality, like German engineering was in the late 20th century. At least that's what the Obama Administration and other advocates, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), have been claiming.
It is clear that technology will again be the engine that drives innovation in advanced manufacturing, just as Henry Ford's greatest invention was considered to be not the Model T car, but the mass-production assembly line. How things are made will be just as important as what gets made, and before long the differences will blur. Last Sunday's Boston Globe highlighted an MIT-inspired federal project, the Materials Genome Initiative, launched in 2011 to fund computational tools, databases and algorithms for developing new materials -- the lithium ion batteries and Velcros of the 21st century. Like the Human Genome Project it is patterned after, the Materials Genome Initiative could not have happened before the invention of high-speed computing and big data.
The technological innovation behind advanced manufacturing is almost entirely focused on other bleeding edge, science fiction-level ways to automate production. It's not just smaller, faster, smarter robots, but nanotechnology and 3D printing. It is the "Internet of Things" and machine-to-machine technology that uses tiny sensors to track the movement of resources and machines through factories, warehouses and the transportation infrastructure.
Training the webmasters of the Internet of Things
Along with these seismic movements in industrial technology has come a strong consensus to reform secondary and higher education to prepare both the aging and the incoming workforce with the new skills that will be needed for jobs in advanced manufacturing. NAM's Manufacturing Institute creates skills certifications and oversees public-private partnerships to encourage the growth of high-tech manufacturing programs in high schools, community colleges and universities. The president's main initiative, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, announced $500 million in grants to community colleges last fall, and has other workforce development plans in the works.
Information technology is mentioned prominently in all of those programs, and there's little doubt that the machinists of this new age of manufacturing will need more computer skills, even if they don't come close to approaching the advanced levels of the programmers and chip designers who will invent the new technologies of advanced manufacturing. It's certainly the image NAM is pushing to make manufacturing jobs more appealing to younger generations who associate the field with grease, grime and soul-killing tedium.
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But with so many of the new positions expected to be essentially high-tech, computer-controlled upgrades of the traditional machine shop job, and with the automation technologies of advanced manufacturing coming out of nanotech labs of elite universities, the current skills gap could actually widen instead of narrow. The question is not so much whether information technology can keep up with the demands of advanced manufacturing, but whether there will be enough people who understand the complex IT systems needed to keep it humming.
We're no longer talking just about the old-school manufacturing resource planning and inventory management that still passes for computerization in many small- and medium-sized manufacturers. The age of advanced manufacturing promises instead to bring massive grid networks consisting of millions of sensors and 3-D printers that "print" car parts from computer-aided design systems half a world away.
The robotics and programmable logic controller-oriented curricula of community college manufacturing programs and the ERP-level application courses taught in business and computer science programs both seem pointed in the wrong direction. They are unlikely to intercept manufacturing technology where it could be a decade from now.
Rather than replacing humans, the next wave of industrial automation could give an increasing number of workers more interesting jobs to do -- jobs that will be essential to this new, knowledge-based industry. The question will be who has the skills to ride the wave and not be crushed by it.