Twelve million Americans support themselves and their families from manufacturing jobs today. According to the Council on Competitiveness, another 60 million jobs are made possible by this manufacturing core.

That’s a large part of the economy, so remaining competitive in the global manufacturing market is essential to our national interests. But given the high U.S. standard of living, competing on the basis of low-cost labor alone is not possible.

Staying competitive

Manufacturers account for 75 percent of the non-government research and development in the U.S., according to the National Association of Manufacturers. They make this investment because they know the pace of innovation will define success in the long run, avoiding commoditization of their products.

Smart manufacturing puts innovation to work, and enables much of today’s productivity throughout the value chain. Smart manufacturing leverages rapid advances in information and communications technologies to digitize and connect every part of a manufacturing enterprise. This optimizes production and increases global competitiveness.

"The jobs and the standard of living enabled by manufacturing only survive if we continue to innovate, evolve our infrastructure and attract and develop a skilled workforce."

By digitally simulating the manufacturing process and supply network, manufacturers can design the most efficient processes and delivery channels, reducing time to market. Once installed on the manufacturing plant floor, smart, connected equipment can start up twice as fast as standalone machines and cut unplanned downtime in half. Experts located hundreds of miles from an oil well or bakery can warn local technicians if there’s an impending problem.

Smart examples

These smart, connected manufacturing systems can be designed to be safe, by creating multiple layers of protection. The same can be done for security, with a ‘defense in depth’ approach beginning at the device and extending throughout the network.

Consider an automobile or aspirin plant: After the auto or aspirin bottle leaves the plant, each is tracked on its global journey to the dealer showroom or pharmacy shelf. The digital infrastructure to convey this information is equally important as the highway travelled by the truck carrying the product.

On a global level, America still contributes one-sixth of the total worldwide manufacturing output. The jobs and the standard of living enabled by manufacturing only survive in a large country such as the U.S. if we continue to innovate, evolve our infrastructure and, most importantly, attract and develop a skilled workforce.

Rolling up our sleeves

The first task is to attract students to the business of making things. It is estimated that 600,000 positions in U.S. industrial companies go unfilled today because the right talent cannot be found, according to a Deloitte study. Fortunately, the news is getting out that advanced manufacturing combines high-tech with making things, and provides high-paying jobs. Real-time operating systems and software, fault-tolerant control, cloud platforms and analytics all play important roles in contemporary manufacturing processes.

The new hands-on

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills will become even more important, as demand for tedious, unskilled labor decreases. These skills must be refreshed constantly over a career that may last 40 years or more to stay current with new technology and keep problem-solving skills sharp. As supply chains become disaggregated, so do sources of talent. The combination of internal investment in research and development and partnering with outside sources of expertise will often represent the most effective path to get innovation to market, according to a study by the World Economic Forum.

The benefits of globally competitive smart manufacturing are hard to overestimate. The multipliers of additional jobs created, new ‘adjacent’ businesses started and even our national security are powerful motivators. It’s up to us to recognize the far-reaching impact and the important role that advanced manufacturing plays in the future.