Evolution or Revolution? – Making a Change and Building Momentum

July 3, 2013

This summer the subject of American manufacturing is heating up conversations from the beaches of the Jersey Shore to office water coolers throughout suburban Philadelphia and beyond.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on advanced manufacturing that went so far as to indicate we are on the verge of—if not already in the midst of—a third Industrial Revolution.

But what does that really mean, and what are the implications, both near and long term? Will we see a return to smokestacks along the I-95 corridor? Or perhaps an influx of commodities producers and textile mills being re-shored to our region?  The short answers are no and no; we live in a different time with a different set of circumstances and opportunities.

Technology Enables Competition

Just as technology and process improvements helped fuel previous industrial revolutions, once again these drivers are emerging as primary change agents for the domestic manufacturing base.  Plant floors are changing all across America—slowly but surely. Our ability to do more with fewer resources puts our productivity at record levels and enables American manufacturers to compete in environments that a decade ago many thought were lost to changing times.

Large and small businesses alike are investing in these advances; early adopters are beginning to integrate new equipment, smart machines, and new IT solutions. As a result, their facilities have enhanced their connectivity, making it possible to optimize manufacturing efficiencies remotely, from anywhere on the globe.  The ability to run a facility from your tablet while sailing in the South Pacific does not make an Industrial Revolution, but computer-driven manufacturing will certainly disrupt many offshore manufacturers’ current competitive advantages.

As the advanced manufacturing paradigm takes root in North America, a steady stream of evolving, technology-driven enablers will change how we envision the facilities themselves. “Manufacturing” will no longer elicit images of grit and grime or dirty workplaces.  New, disruptive technologies like 3D Printers, advanced robotics, cloud technology, and continuous material advancements have the potential to change our industrial performance characteristics in much the same way that the introduction of interchangeable parts and the production line did in years past.

Bringing Manufacturing Home

A new look, advanced capabilities, and a new model based on a smaller, more nimble manufacturing footprint are what we are likely to see more and more of as our landscape transitions.  Faster, better, stronger, and—yes, in some cases, cheaper—are the ways we can now call out the advantages for designing, manufacturing, and assembling products here in the States.

Ultimately, the net outcome of the “made in the USA” revolution is sure to be a dramatic flow of game-changing innovations.  Apple’s “designed in California” ad campaign isn’t enough; we need the life-enhancing innovations first imagined in the U.S. to be built in the U.S.—made with pride and using the most advanced manufacturing equipment available.

If this Industrial Revolution is going to move beyond the theoretical and into reality, we all must be enablers.  We need to reassess how we work, learn, and partner with forward and backward links in our supply chains. We need to accept that the old ways of manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere are gone and are not coming back.  And we need to be open to taking advantage of the tools and technologies that can help us leapfrog the rivals that have built themselves up by selling on price, and price alone.

DVIRC and its partners have put in place the capacity to help manufacturers innovate by making it easier and quicker to learn about, assess, and—when appropriate—invest in specific advanced manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator assists regional manufacturers by providing the knowledge and skills necessary to capture the value of advanced manufacturing and achieve profitable growth through new products, processes, services, markets, and customers.  You can read more here.