Is manufacturing expanding or contracting? - The EE

Is manufacturing expanding or contracting?

Joseph Zulick of MRO Electric and Supply

There seems to be a lot of opinions on what is happening in manufacturing currently, some experts believe manufacturing is expanding to the greatest heights in the last decade. Other leaders feel our manufacturing base is contracting rapidly. Where are we… let’s look at what’s happening, says Joseph Zulick a writer and manager at MRO Electric and Supply.

If we look at new opportunities in manufacturing arenas like Smart manufacturing which encompasses technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Additive Manufacturing (AM) and Robotics, there are dramatic increases in their business.

There are many other areas but these are the largest trending. With these areas we see new found technology creations such as cyber security. Cyber security has been around but once IoT took off many associated businesses have thrived. Drone business opportunities have been taking off, literally.

These businesses are in many cases their own industry but also supportive of the larger manufacturing society. Robotics has certainly found expansion in manufacturing. You can group in with robotics, the automation family of products. Why has this area been expanding, workforce limitations.

As most people know we have a workforce shortage of skilled labour especially around the trades. The educational institutions are working to fill this pipeline but it’s taking too long. If you’re a manufacturer and you need to produce 1000 widgets per hour, you need a solution today!

VR and AR currently help to find solutions to our challenges quicker and can perform services remotely. In many areas these systems are used to train new workers when machines aren’t available or to simulate working conditions. AI is helping us solve our problems before they become problems and find solutions that meet expanding demands.

On other sides of the coin we do see contraction in the market as some of the above technologies replace existing processes and create unintended consequences. In efforts to make products lighter we are changing the process to adapt to new materials required to meet the new demands.

We see less steel being used to manufacture the same items as we shift to plastics and high strength low alloy materials and substituting aluminum for heavier material. Even using Additive Manufacturing to create new shapes and designs. Layers of paper or cardboard perform tasks that older heavier foam rubber or other shock absorption materials used to service.

The changes will impact many areas. Combustion engines are required less and less as motors take their place. This has dramatically shifted how we see vehicle production. Technology and efficiency have forced some suppliers to reconsider their processes to compete in a modern world.

If we use metrics that have been used in the past such as car sales. Some numbers indicate a decline of 2% and with the strike at General Motors for a month, production numbers declined also. Record auto prices also play into this effect for obvious reasons as affordability figures prominently into the automotive picture.

In the new home building world, another indicator for major manufacturing, new home sales dipped a percent last month, but demand is still high in many areas. These technologies impact building materials and of course appliances.

There are of course a level of doomsday predictors who will be right eventually and tout how they told you so, how business was slowing, but I could just as easily predict snowfall in winter or warmth in the summer, everything will slow eventually.

Unemployment is still a critical issue that is driving technology and also driving automation which has a large impact on why stock market numbers continue their ascension. YTD improval is still reflecting this area of investor confidence. This past year capital equipment numbers were incredible as companies stopped their band aid solutions and invested in new, and often improved, equipment.

The response for automation and technology has really set the tone for this improvement. We are living in a data rich society and there is little acceptance for the response “I don’t know”.

Despite production having shifted from large batch runs and shifting to shorter runs with more flexibility, we see rising efficiency in production. We are using data, finally, to our benefit.

The recording of important data has shown us areas of opportunity. We used to be content with knowing if the machine was running or down, but now, we realise the “reason” for not running and are finally working to solve the problem. As in every area of production there will be winners and losers, the question is how are you adapting to this shift? Change is not good! Change is not bad! It just is, and you have to adapt to this moving target.

Leverage the technology to your improvement and you will benefit from that investment. This is the direction of our future. Let’s continue expanding manufacturing.

The author is Joseph Zulick is writer and manager at MRO Electric and Supply.

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