A Tale of Two Manufacturing Sectors: Reality Vs. Perception

Manufacturing workers on the machine floor

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the age of digital transformation, it is the age of cybersecurity risks. It is the epoch of job creation, it is the epoch of the skills gap. It is the season of the manufacturing renaissance, it is a season plagued by misconceptions.

Since the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the manufacturing industry as a whole has bounced back impressively, reestablishing itself as the backbone of the American economy. By embracing cutting-edge technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation in conjunction with progressive supply chain and procurement practices, the industry is poised for continuous growth.

In spite of all this innovation and advancement, though, the American public still doesn’t seem to recognize the manufacturing industry as the powerhouse it is. Recently, Thomas surveyed over 1,000 individuals from across the country to ascertain how the manufacturing industry is perceived by non-manufacturing Americans. The results were illuminating, and revealed that the manufacturing sphere is largely misunderstood by the public.

Although the overwhelming majority of participants claimed to be either somewhat or very familiar with the manufacturing industry, the numbers showed a great lack of awareness regarding how the industry operates, as well as its overall strength.

Exponential Growth

In one of the more surprising revelations, over 55% of survey respondents labeled the state of the manufacturing industry as either “stable but weak” or “declining.” However, data from various government agencies and respected trade associations tells a very different story. According to these numbers, the manufacturing industry has been steadily growing in both size and capital over the past decade.

And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the manufacturing industry has increased employment by almost 1.3 million workers in the last decade, with 196,000 of those jobs filled during 2017. Furthermore, in most recent years, the industry has boasted a consistently low unemployment rate, generally below the national average.

As for capital, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the manufacturing industry added $2.33 trillion to the American economy during the first quarter of 2018. This is a significant increase over 2009, when the industry contributed only $1.7 trillion. According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), “For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.89 is added to the economy.”

False Impressions

The survey also revealed that only half of the participants viewed the manufacturing industry as being a “high tech field.” The rest of respondents believed either that manufacturing was a “low tech” field (17%) or didn’t know (32%).

But the manufacturing industry is currently in the middle of a technological revolution, often referred to as Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution. This upheaval is centered on the utilization of advanced automation, robotics, Big Data, the IoT, cloud computing, AI, and other dynamic technologies.

These high-tech innovations are becoming increasingly prevalent as smart factories become more integrated and complex supply chains require greater transparency. Many new technologies are also bringing about enhanced safety for human workers.

A recent partnership between Colgate-Palmolive and RealWear, a company manufacturing ruggedized hands-free, voice-controlled wearables, serves as a good example of high tech’s rising popularity. After a successful pilot run, Colgate-Palmolive decided to inaugurate these gadgets as standard devices for hundreds of workers employed across 20 of the company’s largest global manufacturing facilities, signifying the first step in normalizing the use of trail-blazing tech by major manufacturers.

The Perpetuation of the Robot-Takeover Myth

Although survey participants had a shaky perception of the manufacturing sector’s tech level, more than a third of them recognized manufacturing as the industry that will be most affected by automation over the next 10 years. However, almost 35% of respondents also believed that the changes generated by “robotics and automation” would ultimately have a detrimental effect on the manufacturing sector.

While it’s true that automation, AI, the IoT, and robotic process automation (RPA) will certainly alter the manufacturing job market, rendering millions of low-skill jobs obsolete, transitioning to high-tech systems is likely to create many more jobs than it destroys. With automated systems and processes handling the grunt work, more time and resources can be devoted to higher-level tasks, stimulating new growth initiatives.

Of course, this will prove challenging for both employers and employees, who now face unchartered territories in balancing human skills with technology. However, by focusing on developing high-demand soft skills such as problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and creativity, existing and prospective workers alike will have the opportunity to take on exciting new roles.

The State of the Manufacturing Industry

Although the survey participants had a distorted view of the health of the manufacturing industry, the survey also revealed that the average American citizen holds U.S. products in high regard. The majority of respondents — 61.19% — said that they preferred “Made in America” products, and 44.96% felt that American products were superior to their overseas counterparts.

While the manufacturing industry is more robust, dynamic, and innovative than ever before, there are still some challenges that need to be confronted head-on in order to sustain success. To bridge the growing skills gap, the manufacturing industry will have to bridge the perception gap first.




Image credit: Firma V/Shutterstock.com

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