Last Word: Dramatic Changes On The Horizon For Manufacturing

Filed Under: Manufacturing, Last Word, More News

National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) statistics reveal that manufacturers here in Massachusetts account for nearly 10 percent of the state’s total output and about 7 percent of the total workforce. Whether you think that is a strong number or not, we can agree that there is still plenty of room for growth.

One driver of change will be an increased, more sophisticated use of automation in manufacturing – “smart automation” with a strong emphasis on robotics.  

Manufacturing occurs through two processes:  Subtractive, or taking a piece of metal or plastic and turning it into a product by shaping it and removing some of the original material; and Additive, where manufacturers take basic materials and create objects and parts by adding in metals and materials to create the finished product from the ground up. This is also known as 3D printing.  Both will factor into the industry’s growth, as will the employment situation here in the state.

We see Subtractive Manufacturing performed in machine shops across the state and beyond. CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) is a computerized manufacturing process in which pre-programmed software and code controls the movement of complex machinery, such as grinders, lathes and mills, all of which are used to cut, shape and create different parts and prototypes. CNC machinists combine mechanical design, technical drawings, mathematics and computer programming skills to produce a variety of metal and plastic parts. CNC operators can take a sheet of metal and turn it into something special, such as a critical airplane or automobile part. Up until this point, CNC has relied primarily on machinists to complete these tasks.

And therein lies the challenge. The industry has struggled to find people to fill manufacturing jobs. During the COVID restrictions in particular, it was difficult for many in the manufacturing industry to find people willing to work in person. And many of the manufacturers and machinists are aging out and retiring with the introduction of new technology that may also signal a change in the workforce that the industry seeks to attract.

Automation with robotic functions will be a game-changer for the industry – and not necessarily with an eye toward eliminating jobs, but in filling the jobs that have gone unfilled, as well as significantly boosting production and lowering costs.

Robotics can lead to what we call “lights out” manufacturing – the introduction of automated manufacturing machinery. For some, it can serve as a “third shift”, where a machinist can program and set up machinery with robotic features, which creates parts on its own. It will perform all of the subtractive elements – forming, shaping and completing the individual part, even including a self-inspection feature.  The machine can be programmed to run through the night; it self-inspects and makes adjustments as needed. An owner can close up shop, turn the lights out (hence the name), and come in the next morning to have large quantities of a specific product ready to ship. This process will really drive efficiencies in the industry. 

Additive Manufacturing may boost our industry by as much as 20 percent in the next decade through the use of 3D printers. Currently, 3D is really great for prototyping and short run work, but watch for refinements that will make it an integral part of the manufacturing process.

We will also see a change in the workforce that is attracted to the industry. We may see the manufacturing worker of the future migrate from being vocationally trained to college educated. Emerging technologies will mean that future workers will need to learn about robotics and other advancements to be competitive in the industry.

The industry will modernize in its business processes. The future will be 100 percent cloud-based, with purchase orders and other forms being able to be directly entered. A cloud-based system will also enable customers to track the progress of their orders in real time. 

Automation will increase production, and help address labor shortages, giving manufacturers reason to hope that their industry will continue to expand – and thrive. Robotics will also create a greater parity and make us more competitive here in Massachusetts and across the country. Overall, there is great opportunity in this industry.

Ron Gerace is CEO of Precision Design Engineering in Wareham,