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How STEM Can Spur Even More Manufacturing Innovation & Growth This Year

Today is Manufacturing Day, an annual “holiday” of sorts intended to celebrate everything that makes manufacturing so spectacular – including the people driving the industry’s continuous innovation. It is also a prime opportunity to (hopefully) appeal to the next generation of manufacturing professionals. But, first, we must separate the facts from the fiction about manufacturing:

Fiction: Manufacturing is old fashioned, old school, and/or full of older workers. It’s very basic, yet hard, work with little creativity or skill required.

Manufacturing Industry 4.0

Fact: First off, forget about what you know from just about every movie or TV show. Their depiction of factories is so dated, and very cliché. Manufacturing is huge, growing, and very high tech. (Have you heard of  Industry 4.0?) It’s also one of the hottest career opportunities for those with STEM backgrounds. And, no, working in manufacturing does not just mean working on an assembly line (just ask anyone who works at Xplore, including VP of Engineering Bryan Bell). In fact, there are many career paths one can take in the manufacturing sector, ranging from the production and logistics positions that you may think of most frequently, to engineering and innovation behind the scenes.

Secondly, today’s manufacturing standard is focused on a higher value, higher complexity and higher customization business model. This is especially true in the United States and many parts of Europe. According to the Congressional Research Service in their report “U.S. Manufacturing in International Perspective” (January 18, 2017): “U.S. manufacturers spend far more on research and development (R&D) than those in any other country, but manufacturers’ R&D spending is rising more rapidly in several other countries.”

Plus, according to data from OECD-WTO, the U.S, ties China for #2 in exports of transport equipment and leads in exports of Electrical and Optical equipment (2011 – latest data). In the latter case China was #10 to US #1 position. This wouldn’t be the case if manufacturing was still operating as portrayed on TV.

Fiction: Manufacturing is “dying.”

Fact: The United States manufacturing sector is bigger than most think. In fact, the U.S. and China together account for about 40% of worldwide value-added manufacturing . In 2015, US Manufacturing was $2.2 trillion to China’s $2.9 trillion. Bonus: Western Europe, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand have significant manufacturing output too.

Fiction: Technology is displacing workers.

STEM education for Manufacturing jobs of the future

Fact: Yes, there will be fewer on-the line workers per unit of output. However, there will be a need for more workers with STEM backgrounds. The reality is that,with all of this investment in R&D and new capabilities in factories, many workers are becoming hybrid mechanical and information workers. In other words, these high-tech machines need workers with high tech skills . That’s where new job opportunities will arise.

 There is much more data in use in today’s manufacturing environments than even five or 10 years ago, and real-time access to that data is essential. That’s why mobile devices are increasingly common on factories. Plus, automated barcoding with database links are now ubiquitous in distribution centers and throughout factories to manage and track all material movements, with sensors, IoT, AI and many other high-tech solutions integrated into factory architectures to generate accurate and complete data sets around the clock…to information workers.

Besides, the increasing customization of finished goods means that manufacturers need human workers who can think on their feet while yielding a wrench or other tools of the trade, such as a tablet. Thus, the reason why there’s an increasing call for workers with both manual and STEM-related skill sets. Plus, many manufacturing sectors in today’s digital age require technology-skilled workers because they rely on high-tech factories to produce their goods. Someone needs to oversee and maintain that technology, and all workers need to be able to interact with it – and leverage it – as necessary.

Read more about what’s really driving the Industry 4.0 movement, and the role that millennials will really play in manufacturing’s future success.

IndustryWeekWant to Attract Millennials in Manufacturing? Make Mobility a Top Priority

Modern Materials HandlingOther Voices: Don’t walk into the “Industry 4.0” tech trap 

Business News DailyIndustry 4.0: How the Internet of Things is Revolutionizing Manufacturing

Consider semi-conductor fabrication – the making of integrated circuits (ICs) or chips. This manufacturing sub-sector has led the way in automation, metrics, and configurable machines. The chips are so refined, they can only be made by machines. These highly specialized machines create tiny chips with two billion transistors, with incredibly high yields. It is a very complex process to grow a wafer, place the circuits, cut the wafer into chips, and package them. However, even with the almost unimaginable complexity, they are able to make these very dense chips with very few defects because of a methodology of measuring everything, controlling everything, and incrementally improving. They are also able to sustain such high-volume outputs because computers control everything.

A few years ago, a golfing buddy told me about an initiative at a semi-conductor facility in the Southwest U.S. where he worked as a Finance Director. As with many large companies, the CFO saw a tough quarter and asked each of his Finance Directors to squeeze their organization’s operating budget. Turns out, my buddy was financially responsible for the main semi-conductor fab line, a new role for him after a recent transfer. So, he suggested some steps to reduce expenses, but everything was running so optimally, he couldn’t find any savings. He asked if they could raise the air conditioning temperature one degree. The fab engineers told him that they had modeled that, and yields would fall by 8%, which would have cost tens of millions of dollars in lost ICs. He asked if they could slow the air filtration systems. He was told that the yield would fall even more precipitously. This is because fab lines are so meticulously measured, and the results are so refined, that they are always running optimally. The only way to do better is with new equipment and processes, which are always planned for the next chip, not the current production run.

Xplore Engineer Dave Reber Interview

 And, while the lesson of fab lines is that more automation, measurements, and process refinements (primarily via computers) yields better quality and results, most factories are not semiconductor fab lines. Though semiconductors are not customizable during a run, most goods produced in factories are assembled from components and are customizable. That means that most factories need people, flexible machines, and people that understand how to leverage these machines to facilitate greater customization levels. That is why more students in STEM are needed, and why today, Manufacturing Day, is so critical to the advancement of an entire industry. Those degreed in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics can – and should – hold prominent positions with today’s factories. There are real, deep careers found in today’s manufacturing sector. Technologically-geared minds are needed to develop, maintain and manage the sophisticated machines now commonplace inside the four walls of manufacturing facilities. Not only are many of today’s factories computer-controlled, robustly networked, and supporting a host of information workers – they are generating unprecedented volumes of data to which analytics must be applied to improve manufacturing quality, streamline operations and find new ways to “do things better”. In my opinion, manufacturing is an ideal destination for any STEM graduate.

 Remember: While these machines are now computer controlled, or at least computer configured, they are still machines that need mechanical attention. Meaning, manufacturers still need humans in the Industry 4.0 era. The difference is that workers must possess more than just the necessary mechanical skill. They need to understand how each machine operates, how it can be and has been configured. They also need the telematics on how it has been operating. And these are just a few examples of the kind of data that workers need before they can turn one wrench. The only way to complete these critical tasks accurately and in a timely way is with mobile devices that are connected. Connected to the factory systems, and to the device under test.

Manufacturers need to be committed to equipping workers with essential mobile technologies, such as tablets that deliver full computing capabilities and I/O connections, if they want to optimize their other technology-driven systems. STEM workers won’t step into a factory if handed paper manuals. They expect modern technology. And to get the value from all the available technology, factories need STEM workers. A marriage made in heaven – and the key to the ongoing growth of today’s already flourishing manufacturing sector.

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Webinar: Avoid the Industry 4.0 Tech Trap

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