Sometimes it seems that every economic development organization includes “advanced manufacturing (AM)” among the industries it hopes to attract and support. Skeptics scoff that this is vague and ask how to define it.
At a recent conference, I described two manufacturing site selection engagements and asked the audience which was advanced manufacturing. The first company had plans to build and test fly a drone prototype; it was to be hand-built using carbon composites with innovative design, propulsion, and communication systems. Half the workforce were engineers and PhDs. The audience agreed this was advanced manufacturing.
The second company was a European candlemaker considering manufacturing in the U.S. Candles have been around for thousands of years. Is this advanced manufacturing? Not many hands went up. I added some background. Over lunch in the factory, one of the founders held up a tea light (a small, inexpensive candle often sold in bundles of 50 or 100) and said, “This is not a high-tech product, but to make them in large quantities, with good quality and at a price competitive with China-based competitors, is a high-tech process.”
Advanced manufacturing can be the product itself or the process, and sometimes it is both.
Workforce talent is a common, critical need. The drone builder is obvious its workforce was nearly half engineers and PhDs, and half airframe and powerplant technicians. The candlemaker employed many in unskilled jobs, but the critical skills were automated process control (APC) technicians. One of the deciding factors in their community selection was the strong APC training program at the local community college.
During a recent webinar, I heard the argument, “All manufacturing will be digital.” Real-time data and connectivity will help streamline processes, link supply chains, enhance quality control and monitor the status of equipment for preventive maintenance, among other benefits. These developments have been called the Internet of Things or Manufacturing 4.0. Digital may be the common link among varied manufacturing sectors that defines advanced manufacturing.
I recently toured the facilities of a door maker near Denver. Each door, residential or commercial, is made for a specific customer in a kind of mass customization model. Doors have existed for thousands of years, so I asked what made this an advanced industry. The answer? Data and software creating intelligence in the system. When an order is placed, a technology platform creates a bill of materials, schedules work, develops instructions for the appropriate equipment and eventually continually monitors progress on the highly automated shop floor. I asked how many options were possible. The answer, it turns out, is so large that it isn’t worth calculating.
MxD, or Manufacturing x Digital (mxdusa.org), northwest of downtown Chicago, works in partnership with the Department of Defense to help build this future. It is one of 16 institutes under the Manufacturing USA umbrella (manufacturingUSA.com) created to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing through public-private collaboration in fields such as additive manufacturing, photonics, robotics, composites, materials and more.
MxD’s innovation center includes a 22,000-square-foot factory where it works with more than 300 partners. These partners include international companies, universities, and local workforce development organizations. MxD notes that its mission is to equip U.S. factories with the digital tools, cybersecurity and workforce expertise needed to begin building every part better than the last.
Is it an exaggeration to say all manufacturing in the U.S. (and other developed countries) is or will be advanced? Maybe, but it’s not much of a stretch. T&ID