Technological transformation just might be today's watchword for American manufacturers, according to respondents to ThomasNet.com's 2013 Industry Market Barometer
(IMB) survey. Thirty years ago, few would have pointed to the manufacturing sector as a hotbed of technological innovation. Yet today, technology permeates every aspect of manufacturing, from design engineering to the assembly line to marketing and sales.
Of the 1,209 professionals who responded to the survey, 42 percent said their companies added technologies during the past three years and slightly more suggested that technology was a key to their competitiveness.
Companies are boosting productivity with more advanced computer-aided design (CAD) software, computer numerical control (CNC) equipment, and cloud computing, the IMB survey found.
"Our company has transformed from a small manual welding shop to a national supplier of trailer-hitch, agricultural, and job-shop products and processes by embracing technology to increase worker productivity," one respondent told ThomasNet.com.
Business owners and managers are increasingly relying on "visual boards" for fast top-line views of what's happening at their facilities, the survey found. They are also using smartphones and tablets to monitor inventory for stocking and pricing.
A significant finding in the IMB study is that the Internet is becoming critical to business development. Sixty-two percent of the manufacturers surveyed said their websites will have the most impact on securing more business. That's nearly three times the number who made the same assessment in last year's survey.
"Digital marketing strategies are, in fact, in use by many manufacturers," the IMB report states. The top choices are e-mail, social media, supplier discovery websites
, and online display advertising.
Technology is creating more opportunities for companies and individuals alike. More than half (55 percent) of the manufacturers surveyed grew last year and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said they expect to grow this year.
The markets that companies identified this year as offering the most opportunities for growth differed little from last year's response: aerospace and defense, fabricated metals, medical equipment, energy and utilities, and automotive.
Needless to say, additive manufacturing, what's popularly known as 3D printing, is expected to spark a revolution in some industrial sectors.
And as new technology drives the manufacturing sector, it also creates a need for a next-generation workforce.
"As a foundation for our economy, the manufacturing sector remains vibrant, but cracks are coming to the surface," said ThomasNet President Eileen Markowitz. "Changes in the workforce demographics and old attitudes about manufacturing as a career threaten the industry's expansion. It's time for those who love American manufacturing to double their efforts to engage the next generation."
Among those who participated in this year's IMB survey, 70 percent were product manufacturers and custom manufacturers. Nearly two-thirds of the companies are small, with up to 100 employees and almost 68 percent have annual revenues of less than $50 million. Respondents included business owners, managers, engineers, purchasing agents, and marketing executives.