Benefits of embracing manufacturing innovation for a competitive edge

American manufacturing is thriving through the integration of cutting-edge technologies and the development of a skilled workforce, driving unprecedented growth and efficiency.

By Jerry Poon, PE, RCDD June 25, 2024
Courtesy: Cincinnati Incorporated/Steve Rourke, WTWH Media


Learning Objectives

  • Understand how the number of manufacturing establishments and construction spending have surged in recent years.
  • Explore the impact of AI, robotics and digital technology on enhancing manufacturing efficiency and quality.
  • Recognize the importance of workforce development and STEM education in preparing for the future of manufacturing.
  • Examine how modern manufacturing facilities are achieving significant productivity improvements and sustainability goals through technological integration.

Manufacturing innovation insights

  • American manufacturing has experienced significant growth, with establishments increasing by more than 11% from early 2019 to mid-2023. This expansion underscores the industry’s resilience and commitment to innovation.
  • Integrating AI and robotics in manufacturing enhances efficiency by automating repetitive tasks, allowing human workers to focus on complex activities, which improves production speed and reducing errors.

In the heart of American manufacturing, innovation isn’t just a buzzword—it’s the lifeblood that keeps the industry thriving. As an MEP electrical engineer with many years of experience, I’ve seen firsthand how technological advancements can redefine the boundaries of what’s possible. Embracing innovation, digital technology and workforce development can propel American manufacturing to new heights.

The evolution of American manufacturing

The landscape of American manufacturing has seen a remarkable transformation in recent years. The number of manufacturing establishments in the United States grew by more than 11% from early 2019 to mid-2023, nearing 393,000 by the end of this period. This growth is a testament to the industry’s resilience and adaptability.

Construction spending in manufacturing, which includes investments in building new or expanding existing facilities, has nearly tripled since June 2020. By January 2024, it reached an all-time high of $225 billion, marking a 37% increase YoY. This surge in investment reflects a collective belief in the future of American manufacturing, driven by the integration of advanced technologies and a commitment to innovation.

The power of technology and innovation

In the realm of manufacturing, technology is not just a tool—it’s a revolution. The integration of AI, robotics and digital systems has become indispensable. Imagine a factory floor where robots and humans work side by side, each playing to their strengths. This isn’t science fiction; it’s the new reality of modern manufacturing.

AI and robotics are enhancing efficiency by automating repetitive tasks and allowing human workers to focus on more complex, value-added activities. For instance, at a leading automotive manufacturer I worked with, integrating AI-driven robotics into their assembly line improved production speed and errors decreased thanks to the precise operations of robotic arms. These advancements ensure every component is placed with exacting accuracy, improving overall product quality.

In the semiconductor industry, where precision is critical, AI-driven inspection systems offer enormous potential. These systems detect microscopic defects that human eyes might miss, improving yield and reducing waste. The potential of automation, controls and instrumentation in manufacturing is boundless. For example, advancements in machine vision systems allow for real-time quality control, allowing users to catch defects immediately rather than after production. This proactive approach saves time and resources, highlighting the critical role of continuous innovation.

Consider the example of Mondelēz’s baking facility in Beijing, where frontline workers are more technicians than machine operators. They have achieved more than twice the productivity improvements, reduced waste by up to 70% and cut energy consumption by 10 to 25%. This facility provides a glimpse into the future of manufacturing in America, where the role of humans is to optimize and oversee advanced automated systems rather than perform routine tasks and can transform how workers operate.

Digital technology is the backbone of modern manufacturing

Digital technology is revolutionizing American manufacturing. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has transformed factory operations by enabling real-time data collection and analysis. This connectivity allows for more informed decision-making and enhances operational efficiency.

At a large-scale beverage manufacturing plant, the results were remarkable. Continuous monitoring of equipment led to a 20% decrease in downtime due to predictive maintenance, as potential issues were identified and addressed before causing significant disruptions. This is just one example of how IoT can optimize operations and drive efficiency.

Real-time data analytics is another critical aspect of digital technology. In one project, we used advanced analytics to track and optimize energy consumption across a facility. The insights gained allowed us to make informed decisions that reduced energy costs by 15% without compromising production quality. Digital tools can not only enhance efficiency, but they also improve every aspect of the manufacturing process.

The future of digital technology in manufacturing is promising. More than 75% of companies plan to adopt big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) within the next five years. Digital platforms and apps are even more prevalent, with 86% of companies expecting to incorporate them into their operations. These technologies are not just about efficiency; they’re about transforming the very fabric of how manufacturing is done, making it smarter and more adaptable.

Workforce development and STEM education are building the future

While technology drives innovation, it is the people behind the machines who make it all possible. Workforce development and STEM education are critical in preparing the next generation of manufacturing professionals.

Aligning educational offerings with industry demands is essential. Apprenticeship programs provide practical solutions by offering hands-on experience and bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application. In my work with a leading aerospace manufacturer, we implemented a comprehensive apprenticeship program. Participants not only gained valuable skills, but also worked on cutting-edge projects, ensuring they were well-equipped for future roles.

Continuous learning and upskilling are equally important, especially in the context of automation and facility operations. As technology evolves, so must the skills of the workforce. According to the Future of Jobs Survey 2020, by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by the shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge more suitable to this new division of labor. This highlights the critical need for ongoing education and training.

STEM education also is a crucial factor. Despite its importance, U.S. students rank 28th out of 37 OECD countries in math and 12th in science. This gap must be addressed to ensure the future workforce is prepared for the challenges of modern manufacturing. Partnerships between industry and educational institutions are vital for fostering innovation and skills development. These collaborations keep educational programs relevant and prepare graduates to meet the challenges of modern manufacturing.

STEM also workers enjoy higher median earnings than those in other, non-STEM occupations. In 2019, median earnings for full-time, year-round workers in STEM jobs were about $77,400, compared to $46,900 for workers in non-STEM occupations. This economic incentive underscores the importance of investing in STEM education and training.

The future of American manufacturing

American manufacturing’s future lies in our ability to embrace innovation, leverage digital technology and invest in workforce development. Doing this can help ensure American manufacturing remains competitive on a global scale. As professionals in this field, it is our responsibility to stay informed, adapt to new technologies and support initiatives that prepare the next generation of manufacturing leaders.

Let’s continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in manufacturing, creating a future where technology and human ingenuity work hand in hand to achieve greatness. Together, we can shape the future of manufacturing in America.

Jerry Poon is lead electrical engineer at Touchstone Engineering.


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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Jerry Poon PE, RCDD, is an electrical engineer at Touchstone Engineering Corporation with over 13 years of experience in construction and manufacturing innovation. With a deep understanding of the industry's technological advancements and a commitment to workforce development, Jerry has been at the forefront of driving efficiency and quality in modern manufacturing processes. He is dedicated to continuously learning and collaborating to advance the industry.