One of the big goals this year is to grow manufacturing jobs in the United States. It is a wonderful goal and I endorse it. There are some challenges with the plan that not too many are talking about. At face value, manufacturing jobs sound great. But manufacturing jobs in 2017 are not the same as manufacturing jobs were in the 50s, 60s or 70s. Because of advanced technologies in our manufacturing plants and the high levels of automation, many of the jobs available today require much greater levels of skills and training than those of past decades.
Machine guarding is often thought of as something associated with industry and manufacturing plants. It is true that the potential for hazards from machines is greater in those settings. But even in our homes we often have machines where safety guards have become common. Our garage doors have sensors so that if anything cuts the plane of the door the opener will reverse the action and open the door. Riding lawnmowers have seat interlocks to shut down the engine when we get off the mower. Table saws have sensors to shut the blade off quickly if it comes in contact with a finger. And even kitchen appliances like a food processor have interlocks to keep clumsy home operators from cutting their fingers.
In February, 2009 the US economy hit a new low and in an effort to spur it along the Fed dropped the prime interest rates to a historic low of 3.25 percent. It stayed there for seven years and is just beginning to rise again, but slowly. Money has been cheap and abundant. In spite of this there has not been enough demand from the manufacturing sector to use all the available cash as investment capital to build new manufacturing infrastructure. Suddenly, in the spring of 2017 we have a new interest in increasing US manufacturing capacity and building new manufacturing plants. The initial investment will be made by large multinational well financed companies. Many of them have available cash reserves and are only looking for good ways to invest it. But the growth of these firms has a multifaceted ripple effect. Smaller firms, which are suppliers to these mega-firms, will get to grow with the economy as well. A rising tide raises all boats. Perhaps the question to ask is how rising interest rates will impact medium and small business as well as individual consumers.
Some products are just too significant to die. Or so it would seem. A few that come to mind are Wonder Bread, Twinkies, the Polaroid Camera and now Ektachrome film. A question we might ask is if the product was so great in the first place why did it disappear from the marketplace. And what makes companies believe that if they reinstate a previously failed product it will succeed the second time? Reasons may vary from situation to situation. And it may be a matter of timing. Although it isn’t a single brand, the sale of vinyl records is one example of the rebound of what appeared to be an obsolete product. Sales of vinyl in 2016 reached a 25-year high. More than three million LPs were sold in 2016, the highest number since 1991. Spending on vinyl outstripped that spent on digital downloads.
Many efficient, high-speed manufacturing processes are implemented using roll-to-roll manufacturing that processes a web based product.
The byword of the presidential campaign and the new administration has been creating manufacturing jobs in the United States. But even before the change in leadership in Washington there was a push to create manufacturing jobs, save the automobile industry, provide funding to create apprenticeships and new qualified tradesmen.
There has always been an element of service as a product but it is accelerating in recent years and may become the dominant method of delivery for sophisticated goods over the next several years. The question being asked by manufactures is, do consumers want a “thing” or do they want the service that the product delivers? Do consumers want to buy a device and use and maintain it or would they prefer to pay for the actual use they get from it? A traditional example of this was the car lease. Consumers get a car to use and effectively pay for the miles they drive. The repair and maintained costs are covered in the lease fee paid. The same concept can now be applied to almost anything a consumer uses. As the Internet of Things has become more robust it has made it possible to monitor more closely the operation and failure of appliances, and to do predictive and preventive maintenance.
In a quote attributed to Warren Bennis over a decade ago, it was stated that “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching any of the equipment.” Perhaps the future he visualized is very near.
There is a lot of heated debate about everything Trump. The Trump energy policy is certainly one of the more heated parts of the debate. From one side of the debate come Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post. Rolling Stone ran a headline that simply said “Trump’s Energy Policy would be a Nightmare.” The Huffington Post joined in. As they put it, “The earth, and the US economy, needs a President who understands that going green is the single most effective domestic business plan available to him and that burning more fossil fuels, while rolling back clean air and water regulations, will turn us into Beijing or Delhi.” Not everyone takes such a pessimistic view. Spencer Dale, group chief economist at BP, says that “U.S. energy policies under new President Donald Trump are unlikely to have a big impact on global action to curb a rise in greenhouse gas emissions or to be a big game changer.”
For the past decade and more there has been steady progress toward greater and greater use of advanced automation in manufacturing. While Manufacturing 4.0 and the Internet of Things are new in their implementation, they were preceded by continuing and steady improvements in process control systems, SCADA and historians which have been in place for decades. Capturing process and product data from the plant floor and using analysis techniques such as SPC has been the manufacturing model for decades. One of the challenges has been dealing with the massive amount of data available to use, storing, analyzing, and using the results to meaningfully improve quality and throughput.