Modern Manufacturing in 12 Tweets

Here are a dozen brief points on the future of U.S. manufacturing.


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As published in the August 2010 issue of Modern Machine Shop:

A “tweet” is technically a message of 140 characters or fewer sent via the website, Twitter. For readability, I have not stuck to the 140-character limit for the list of short points on this page.

But here is the gimmick: For each of these points, there is more to say. So on July 9—just before this issue of the magazine went to the printer—I went to Twitter and tweeted a version of every one of these ideas. Each tweet includes a link to a fuller discussion of that idea.

Therefore, if any of these ideas intrigues you, go to Twitter.com/Z_Axis_MMS to learn more. Just scroll down to find the series of tweets that are all dated July 9. I hope you’ll try this even if you have never used Twitter before. You'll find it's easy to create a Twitter username to keep following this and other manufacturing-related feeds. But that’s all I’ll say about tweeting.

Here now are 12 brief points on the future of U.S. manufacturing. Reflect on these—particularly as you think about the future of your own shop as you are planning your visit to IMTS:

1. Technology is pushing in two directions—bigger and smaller. Manufacturers will continue to find fresh fields by meeting the demands for workpieces that are significantly different in scale from mid-sized parts with mid-sized tolerances.

2. The cost of manufacturing overseas is rising, but the cost of manufacturing in lower-cost areas of the U.S. is holding firm. The smart choice is proving to be not outsourcing internationally, but outsourcing from one U.S. region to another.

3. As material prices increase the cost of stock, and as technologies such as 3D printing improve, manufacturers will increasingly employ additive part-making as an additional option alongside subtractive CNC machining.

4. Even though manufacturing facilities have reduced their staff, demographics still predict an industry-challenging lack of technical and engineering talent. Young people are not entering manufacturing at a rate that is anywhere near fast enough to replace those who will retire.

5. On the other hand, population trends also bode well for U.S. manufacturers. A surge in new consumers is coming: the Millenials. This upcoming generation’s expectation of variety will favor short production runs. This in turn will favor an increased reliance on manufacturing in the United States.

6. Manufacturing enterprises are much more diverse than what the government and media seem to be able to imagine. Much of our national conversation about manufacturing still focuses almost solely on “factory” production.

7. The skills and other attributes needed in modern manufacturing are getting more difficult to define, particularly for small and lean facilities. The people who can best recognize these attributes are likely to be the ones who already have them. A manufacturer’s current employees are probably its best link to new employees.

8. Traditionally, the start-up shop was a job shop. Tomorrow, it might just as well be a captive shop. Cheaper, smaller and easier manufacturing equipment will produce a new sector: “basement manufacturing” of niche or custom products.

9. Tool steel? Try tool aluminum. As product lives shrink, steel won’t automatically be the moldmaking material of choice. Increasingly, what was once called “soft” tooling will be seen as full production tooling.

10. Similar to what occurred in the aircraft industry some time ago, the medical device industry will be colonized by regulators. Processes will face new validation requirements, and the pace of innovation will slow. The requirements will also create barriers to competition, resulting in small and nimble manufacturers becoming large and established ones.

11. Any manufacturer today should look out across the production floor and ask: What would my process look like if it was more automated? Then ask: What steps can I take today to move in that direction?

12. The United States is the world leader in terms of global manufacturing market share. U.S. manufacturing also has become significantly leaner, cleaner, more efficient and more responsive in just the last few years. To be sure, there are challenges. However, the idea that the United States is turning away from manufacturing is dramatically overstated. U.S. manufacturing will remain a leading economic force in the world for a long time to come.