Those not familiar with the realities of modern manufacturing — and that’s most of us — may be forgiven for harboring quaint, outdated notions of life on the factory floor. Today, most industrial facilities look nothing like the dirty, smelly, noisy production facilities of yore. They’re far cleaner, far brighter, and far more productive.
These aesthetic changes are just the beginning. Let’s take a look at a few other dramatic recent shifts in the manufacturing landscape, and what they might mean for producers and workers alike.
Outsourcing Is Out of Fashion
In the early to mid-2000s, outsourcing and offshoring were all the rage. The tide began to turn earlier this decade, though, and re-shoring is now in vogue. That’s due in part to industry’s collective tendency to underestimate the complexities of international logistics, and in part to U.S.-based leaders like Majestic Steel CEO Todd Leebow, who advocates (along with plenty of fellow steel execs) for local, regional, and national economic self-reliance.
Whatever its root causes, the re-shoring trend has been a boon for U.S. manufacturing workers.
Fair Trade Advocacy Is Gaining Steam
As re-shoring accelerates, so too does fair trade advocacy — particularly at the lower end of the value-add chain, which is vulnerable to “dumping” and other unfair trade practices by hostile states and state-owned enterprises. Washington has taken note, with ameliorative effects for the hardest-hit industries.
Automation Is Inevitable (And Not Necessarily a Bad Thing for Workers)
According to the Brookings Institution, more than 1.5 million manufacturing robots were in service as of 2015. That figure continues to rise by the month; the current tally is almost certainly well above 2 million. Should human manufacturing associates worry?
In truth, manufacturing automation is not a new trend. Nor is it an unqualified ill for manufacturing workers. Humans and robots have coexisted for decades in automotive assembly and other high-impact manufacturing applications. Rather than crowd humans out of factories altogether, automation has opened doors — by assuming responsibility for much of the rote, dangerous drudgery, industrial robots and the software that drives them free humans to focus on problems that require greater creativity and skill. That’s good for everyone.
New Technology Platforms Are Driving Innovation
Automation notwithstanding, industrial IT has limped well behind the cutting edge for years. That’s slowly changing, thanks to radically transparent marketplace solutions like Felux. In the years ahead, it’s a foregone conclusion that technology will continue to transform manufacturing and manufacturing-adjacent industries, creating new efficiencies and opportunities where friction presently reigns.
Here’s to The Next 50 Years
No one knows what the future holds. Those presently making confident predictions about the future of manufacturing twenty, ten, or even five years hence would do well to learn from predictions past — that is, that things rarely turn out precisely as envisioned.
There is one safe bet to make about the future of manufacturing over the coming half-century and beyond: The status quo will continue to change, and those changes will produce winners and losers. Such has it always been.