Ready for Technology

Manufacturers that have gone through significant change are better prepared than ever to make use of advanced technology. Bring on IMTS.

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The “aughts” are over. That fact might be one of the defining elements of the upcoming International Manufacturing Technology Show—IMTS 2012. The first decade of the new century, 2001 through 2010, included two major manufacturing downturns. That decade is now in the past.

Looking back, we can gain an understanding of where we are today. One of the more striking changes in manufacturing across that previous decade was the decline in manufacturing employment. The tally of U.S. manufacturing jobs was relatively constant for the 20 years prior to 2001. The aughts then saw major employment contractions that, for the most part, have not been undone.
Yet U.S. manufacturing is now busy. In a twist somewhat satisfying to those of us who root for manufacturing, this sector has been leading the U.S. economy. Manufacturers are producing today, albeit with fewer people. How are they doing this? Did the aughts also see so much advancement in manufacturing technology that fewer people are now needed to meet the demand?
Not exactly. Through the previous decade, the advance of manufacturing technology arguably was not all that dramatic—not when compared to the changes resulting from computer and software technology advancements in the 1990s. Instead, in the period from 2001 through 2010, something more subtle happened. For many manufacturers, the culture changed.
Lean manufacturing was a big part of that change. Lean, when it succeeds, involves getting obstacles out of the way of employees’ productivity through the assistance of those very employees. As a result, the advance of lean has a way of changing staff members’ outlooks along with their tasks. The pace of this change can be slow, but many manufacturers have now been at it for years. By embracing lean and similar changes, companies have been rewriting their own cultural DNA—reshaping employee roles to create organizations that are more efficient, more responsive to their markets and more adaptable to new manufacturing ideas. In some cases, staff reductions might have even sped these changes.
So here we are. I think the story of manufacturing technology right now, and the story we will see at IMTS, is one of adoption. Additive manufacturing, automation, the integration of many operations into one CNC machine—all of these ideas in manufacturing technology have been around a while. However, all of these are also examples of technology possibilities that organizations are now looking at with new eyes.
Plenty of manufacturers routinely send attendees to IMTS and have been doing so for years. The difference this year is that a large share of those familiar companies will have recently passed through some very unfamiliar times. The transformations they’ve undergone have set them up to embrace different and even disruptive manufacturing options that their cultures of 10 years ago would not have been able to accept. Because of the extent to which these companies are now ready for technology, IMTS 2012 could not be better timed.