This is a dynamic time for American manufacturing, and the next decade will likely take us to places we haven’t quite imagined yet, just as previous decades have.
As we enter a new decade, the future of American manufacturing is filled with limitless possibilities for innovation. Fueled by ever-evolving international trade challenges—most notably tariffs now impacting manufacturers—the need for more innovation and technological advancements born here in America has become even more essential.
Simply put, American manufacturers must innovate to meet the future needs of their customers, if they want to continue to compete with more innovative countries. How will this happen? Most likely through either the introduction of new products or the enhancement of existing ones; either way, continuous development will be essential.
At the forefront of technologies expected to drive change during this decade is machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence. This is the practice of using historical data from an existing process to predict outcomes. It can be used to help understand the factors that drive variances in quality metrics, and can be used to make certain manufacturing processes more consistent and efficient. Whatever else happens with American manufacturing in the next decade, machine learning will be at the center of it.
This is particularly relevant now given the older population comprising American manufacturers, particularly here in the northeast; when older workers retire they take years of experience and institutional knowledge with them. But with machine learning, patterns in the data can be uncovered, and those in turn can be used to automate and augment some of that decision making.
A number of other technologies are expected to continue to emerge and play a major role over the next 10 years. The use of 5G, robotics, additive manufacturing and augmented reality are readily expected to be part of the manufacturing landscape, and American manufacturers will need to be prepared.
In many ways, these innovations will develop and progress in the same way that past manufacturing innovations have—through human intelligence and knowhow. Many positive things can happen when a group of smart people work together to solve a problem; this has always spurred innovation and always will. But they will now have additional support—companies are going take an increasingly close look at the data being generated not from people and systems, but by machines and how that can inform what we do and how we do it.
What will this mean when it comes to required workforce skillsets? Without question, every employee is going to need to be more technologically savvy to add value to the manufacturing process. Machine operators are using more computers, software and even robotics to do their jobs, and manufacturers should look for data scientists with experience in their industries. One positive here is this will likely make careers in manufacturing more appealing to the next generation of our workforce.
Additionally, the manufacturing employee of the next decade will need to have the ability to question what we do and how we do it. While the ability of workers to get a job done will always be highly valued, the ones who ask why—and, in doing so, bring to light new perspectives—are often the sparks that lead to innovation. That skill will become increasingly critical as we continue to innovate.
This innovation is also where collaboration with state and federal governments will play a key role. The added costs of next-generation manufacturing—rapid response to a dynamic marketplace, the increasing cost of retaining and retraining talent, and the need to operate in a stricter regulatory setting—will be aided by research and development and other tax credits. The value of those credits will only increase in the coming decade, as will the value of those tax benefits (credits and bonus depreciation) that are available for the significant investments in technology and equipment that companies are making to support their advancement. Strong collaboration with government entities can be highly beneficial in the decade to come.
This is a dynamic time for American manufacturing, and the next decade will likely take us to places we haven’t quite imagined yet, just as previous decades have. Those manufacturers who embrace new technologies, machine learning and others, and adapt to these changes are likely to remain leaders in their fields.