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From soaring prices to empty shelves, the fragility of our global supply chain has been exposed for two years due to ongoing disruptions due to COVID-19 shutdowns, geopolitical tensions and rising energy costs. The increasing risk of extreme climate events, such as this summer’s heatwaves and catastrophic floods, has had a truly devastating impact on sectors ranging from agriculture to manufacturing.
These interruptions are not one-time. They are inherent risks to the global just-in-time manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure that are more vulnerable than previously thought. However, reviving domestic manufacturing appears to be an uphill battle. After all, how can manufacturers in the United States, or any country, beat their ultra-efficient, low-cost competitors, especially when dealing with a persistent skills shortage at home?
Rather than keep betting on low-cost solutions, turn to high-tech. A new class of advanced technologies, including robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing and augmented reality (AR), is now poised to transform manufacturing. By adopting these solutions, U.S. manufacturers can increase efficiency, increase productivity, and expand expertise, while attracting a new generation of younger workers seeking accessible careers at the cutting edge of technology. The result: A nationwide network of sophisticated manufacturers creates stable jobs, supplies vital commodities and protects the economy and consumers from future supply chain disruptions.
While the “fourth industrial revolution” has been discussed for some time, the technology has finally caught up with the hype. Today, with many such solutions available, the need for this technology has never been clearer.
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Embrace AR and virtual training
Over the past three decades, the United States has lost about 5 million manufacturing jobs. Workers have naturally moved to other industries, leading to the increasing shortage of manufacturing skills we are now experiencing. Today, more than 80% of manufacturers say attracting and retaining the best talent is a top priority, especially given the imminent retirement of their most senior experts. Overall, the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that by 2030, the skills gap could lead to 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Technology solutions can fill gaps and improve operational efficiency and workforce skills. For example, augmented reality (AR)-based knowledge capture applications enable experienced employees to record complex procedures as they complete them, and then share these sets of instructions for trainees to follow in real time. The process creates a virtual training program in the real world where new employees can experience the process of assembling complex parts without the risk of scrap and thousands of dollars in cost to the company.
The efficiency gains can be huge. Linear motion products manufacturer PBC Linear recently used the solution to reduce training time from three weeks to three days, while saving 20% annually through more precise and efficient operation.
New Industrial Internet of Things
AR is just one example. Industrial IoT can optimize quality control, monitor equipment performance, and guide predictive maintenance. Linking robots in a cloud-based solution can reduce unplanned production interruptions. Two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers already use 3D printing to some degree, from prototyping to high-volume manufacturing. If these technologies are adopted, linked, analyzed and optimized, they will unlock greater business value.
American companies can lead this shift with broad benefits for workers, communities and the economy. Manufacturing jobs often offer higher wages and better benefits than other industries, especially for workers without a college education. These jobs also have the allure and status of working in highly innovative industries when advanced technologies are integrated. This could start a virtuous cycle of driving technology forward by attracting more people to a dedicated, skilled workforce.
Stable global supply chain
Stronger domestic manufacturing will also help mitigate the impact of future supply chain disruptions. Homegrown manufacturers can reduce the risk of severe shortages, as we saw with personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, and ease the pain of daily checkout caused by disruptions in global supply chains. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized this need, and policy can play a vital role. But an efficient, competitive, established manufacturer is ultimately the most reliable solution.
Over the past two years, pressing new questions have been raised about how our world works, including the wisdom of supply chains that span the world and remain stable in every part. The rebalancing toward high-tech domestic manufacturing offers a more resilient path while also creating attractive jobs for communities across the country.
For U.S. manufacturers, the best hope lies in advanced technologies that can increase efficiency, attract talent and level the playing field.
Daniel Diez is CMO at Magic Leap, specializing in augmented reality.
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