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From soaring prices to empty shelves, the fragility of our global supply chain has been exposed by two years of continued disruption from COVID-19 shutdowns, geopolitical tensions and rising energy costs. The growing risk of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and catastrophic flooding this summer, has had a real and disruptive impact on different sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing.
These disruptions are not one-time events. This is an inherent risk of a global just-in-time manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure that is more vulnerable than previously thought. However, restoring domestic manufacturing appears to be an uphill battle. After all, how can manufacturers in the United States – or any country – beat hyper-efficient, low-cost competitors, especially while facing a persistent skills shortage at home?
Rather than continuing to bet on low-cost solutions, it’s time to go high-tech. A new class of cutting-edge technologies, including robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing and augmented reality (AR), now promise to transform manufacturing. By adopting these solutions, U.S. manufacturers can improve efficiency, boost productivity, and develop specialized knowledge, while attracting a new, younger generation of workers seeking an accessible career at the cutting edge of technology. The result: a nationwide network of sophisticated manufacturers that create strong jobs, supply vital goods, and protect the economy and consumers from future supply chain disruptions.
While the “fourth industrial revolution” has been talked about for some time, technology is finally catching up with the hype. Many of these solutions are available today, and the need for this technology has never been clearer.
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Adopt AR and virtual training
Over the past three decades, the United States has lost approximately 5 million manufacturing jobs. Workers naturally turned to other industries, leading to the growing shortage of manufacturing skills we are experiencing today. Today, more than 80% of manufacturers say attracting and retaining quality talent is a priority, especially given the next wave of retirements among their most senior experts. Overall, the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that the skills gap could lead to 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States by 2030.
Technology solutions can fill this gap, promoting both operational efficiency and workforce skills. For example, augmented reality (AR)-based knowledge capture apps allow seasoned employees to record complex procedures as they perform them, then share those sets of instructions that trainees must follow in real time. This process creates a virtual, real-world training program where new employees can experience the process of assembling a complex part without risking it resulting in scrap and thousands of dollars in cost to the business.
The efficiency gains can be significant. PBC Linear, a manufacturer of linear motion products, recently used this solution to reduce training time from three weeks to three days, while achieving annual savings of 20% through more precise and efficient operations.
The new industrial IOT
And AR is just one example. The Industrial Internet of Things can optimize quality control, monitor equipment performance and guide predictive maintenance. Tying robotics into a cloud-based solution can reduce unplanned production downtime. Two-thirds of US manufacturers are already using 3D printing to some degree, from prototyping to high-volume manufacturing. And as these technologies are adopted, linked, analyzed and optimized, they will unlock even greater business value.
American companies can lead this transformation, with significant benefits for workers, communities and the economy. Manufacturing jobs generally offer higher wages and better benefits than other sectors, especially for workers without a degree. When advanced technologies are incorporated, these jobs also have the appeal and status of working in a highly innovative industry. This could kick-start a virtuous cycle, drawing more people into an engaged and skilled workforce that can push new technological advancements.
A stable global supply chain
Stronger domestic manufacturing would also help mitigate the impact of future supply chain disruptions. Local manufacturers can reduce the risk of critical shortages, as we saw for personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, as well as ease the daily pain at checkout caused by a congested global supply chain. Bipartisan lawmakers have recognized this need, and politics can play a vital role. But efficient, competitive and sophisticated manufacturers are ultimately the safest solution.
The past two years have raised pressing new questions about how our world works, including the wisdom of a supply chain that stretches across the globe and assumes stability in every part of it. Rebalancing toward high-tech domestic manufacturing offers a more resilient path, while creating attractive jobs in communities across the country.
For American manufacturers, the greatest promise lies in cutting-edge technologies poised to increase efficiency, attract talent and level the competitive playing field.
Daniel Diez is Marketing Director of Magic Leap, specializing in augmented reality technology.
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