Embracing advances in manufacturing technology to tackle the industry's challenges

Businesses across the manufacturing industry are currently facing a number of new challenges. 

In response to the increase in demand for more bespoke and personalised designs from customers, manufacturers need efficient R&D processes that will enable them to reduce engineering time and costs, and accelerate time to market, producing new designs quickly enough to ensure they remain competitive.   

Additionally, in common with most other industries, manufacturers are also faced with a global skills shortage.   

At present, in the latter half of 2017, there is an insufficient number of engineers that possess the experience and qualifications needed to operate sophisticated automated equipment and machinery, or to fully support the latest technological developments. 

In the case of certain, particularly repetitive, tasks, manufacturers may look to introduce robots to carry out these jobs — albeit with some human support to control the automated processes.  For example, when automated machinery is used on the factory floor, a skilled worker will be required to oversee its operation and to provide it with instructions.  But even with manufacturing companies accepting the need for machine-to-machine (M2M) interfaces, these automated processes are not expected to replace the need for the skills offered by an experienced hands-on engineer.    

Reporting on the skills shortage 

The lack of qualified individuals with the skillset required for today’s tech-centric world has been highlighted in a number of industry reports recently.  

One such report, 2017 Engineering UK: The State of Engineering, for example, highlights the extent to which current demand for qualified engineers is outstripping supply, and indicates a shortfall of at least 20,000 skilled engineers a year. The report goes on to forecast that, in order to meet the UK’s manufacturing needs, the industry will require around 186,000 people with engineering skills each year until 2024.  The Government and associated educational bodies, however, are working to put measures in place to prevent this occurring.   

Manufacturers globally face similar problems.  In the US, for example, according to projections by Deloitte, around 3.5 million engineering roles will need to be filled in America by 2025, with 2 million of these predicted to be affected by a lack of sufficiently skilled workers.   

A question of perception 

Skills shortages are not, of course, unique to the manufacturing industry. However there are a number of reasons why this sector in particular is currently experiencing a lack of skilled workers.   A qualified engineers may often leave his or her particular area of expertise in order to follow a more lucrative career path in a different field, such as finance for example.   

In addition, there is an underlying perception of manufacturing as being unskilled and manual labour, which is no longer reflective of a modern factory floor.  In contrast, technological advancements around newer processes and techniques such as 3D printing are helping to create a new picture of manufacturing.  Technology is continuing to push the boundaries of conventional manufacturing, with more traditional production facilities slowly being replaced by “smart” factories.  As a result, employees can often spend more time using a computer than they do hands-on with more traditional manufacturing equipment.   

Despite these technological developments, however, it appears that the public’s view of the industry may not have evolved at the same pace as the technology it employs. This issue of perception was illustrated by the findings of a study carried out in the US in 2016, which revealed that 71 percent of young people do not consider manufacturing as being a high-tech career choice.   

It's important, therefore, that if the industry hopes to close its skills gap, and inspire more young people to pursue a career in engineering and manufacturing, measures must be taken to dispel such outdated misconceptions, and enlighten the next generation of employees as to what working on the modern manufacturing factory floor actually involves.  

Adapting and evolving to stay one step ahead 

In the midst of today’s global digital revolution, businesses across all industries need employees who are able to adapt to, or evolve with, the latest advances in technology.   

Recognising the importance of creating a workforce made up of intelligent, technology-savvy problem solvers, manufacturing organisations are now beginning to concentrate more on hiring and training employees that will be able to stay one step ahead of advancements in technology, at the same time as driving further investments in that technology.   

Automated software could provide an alternative solution in certain solutions where suitably qualified prospects may not be available, with in-house engineers employing technology-driven techniques such as 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection moulding, for instance, to assist with their product requirements.   

These digital manufacturing technologies can help to reduce a project’s time to market, offering speeds that meet – and in many cases exceed – customer demands, and often enabling parts to be produced, on-demand, within a matter of days.    

While the industry may be facing a number of challenges, these latest advances in manufacturing and automation technologies are enabling companies to deliver more personalised products to customers at speeds not previously believed or imagined possible.   

As a result, technologies such as digital manufacturing are easing the pressure that manufacturers face in delivering their product to market promptly, enabling them to remain competitive and inspire young talent to gain the experience they need to become the next generation of skilled engineers.

Stephen Dyson, Head of Industry 4.0, Proto Labs 

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