That ain’t a tide — it’s a manufacturing tsunami!

I was in the Florida Keys last month — a bit of a strange place for a landlubber like me, but it was warm. If you’ve been there, you know that the Keys are basically ocean with a few stubbles of land sprinkled in. One of the great ways to relax is to grab a cold beverage and watch the water. Sit in the same place for too long and you can see the effects of the tides and watch pieces of beach disappear.

Too much free time allowed my mind to wander and relate those tides to the changes I’ve seen over my lifetime. The completion of the interstate highway system, trips to the moon, and computers morphing from an amusement into a ubiquitous tool. All of these changes moved through and changed the landscape like a tide. If you paid attention, you could move and take advantage of the flow. If not, you were disrupted, suffered a bit of damage, but ultimately could react and move on with your life.

The changes coming in the next few years will not nudge us like a tide. They will pummel us like a tsunami. Accelerating changes in the market, physical world, and technology will catch far too many people flat footed and unable to adapt. Humans are not built for exponential change. We are wired as linear animals and most of us will not be able to comfortably adjust to these changes.

Do you feel comfortable with your position? If so, you probably don’t understand the situation. These changes are real and accelerating — especially in manufacturing. Still, they’re easy to ignore or discount. We’re all so busy that it’s hard to pay attention, and when we try to pay attention, there’s so much data coming at us that it’s hard to decipher and find nuggets that will help us surf the tsunami, rather than be swamped.

I saw this again when representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) labs visited Milwaukee. They showed a sample of the great work being done by thousands of scientists in labs across the country to a group of some of Wisconsin’s leading organizations. We brought together more than 30 people from 18 groups representing the entire state. The collection of all these talented people, coupled with leading-edge science, creates tremendous opportunities. Thinking about it — even for a few minutes — overloaded my brain. All of this showed how vital and difficult a challenge it is to pause and sort through what’s important.

That event provided a broad and deep look at what is possible in the world. Fortunately, these changes are much narrower for manufacturers. Three factors push accelerated change in manufacturing: additive manufacturing, automation, and connectivity. All of these become much more critical in light of the impending body gap — the shrinking of the workforce. These factors are transforming manufacturing and markets around the world.

Additive manufacturing (3-D printing) can make anyone a manufacturer, anywhere in the world. People as diverse as astronauts and elementary school students compete with traditional manufacturers to make goods. Astronauts run 3-D printers on the space station, testing the technology in a weightless environment. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s investment in Fab Labs across Wisconsin school systems put thousands of new students in the manufacturing game. Leading-edge manufacturers now can meet international parts demands by immediately sending a digital file to an appropriate printer anywhere in the world, rather than physically moving the part through thousands of miles of a logistics system. We used to say that customers only want three things: free, perfect, and now. It looks like we’re well on our way to making “now” a reality.



As automation and robotics becomes more democratized, manufacturers find new ways to leverage their workers’ talent. Just a few years ago, a modest robot installation cost about $500,000. It also required another $500,000 investment to build the safety cages to separate those robots and their human operators. Now, similar installations cost less than $50,000, plus integrated safety equipment and improved sensing capabilities eliminate the need for any additional guarding. Robots were once only for the big guys with long runs and repetitive tasks. Their newer versions are flexible and versatile — perfect for smaller manufacturers who want to remain competitive.

Connectivity will also play a huge role in changing manufacturing. The ability to see and interact with anything from anywhere can transform operations. Unfortunately, many of the early efforts in this area involve paving the cow path — using new technology to perform old tasks. This is the result of managers seeking comfort and control. The present statistics reflect this phenomenon. Manufacturing generates 95% of all data created in the world, but only uses 2%! The challenge is to use this data in new and transformative ways, not just reinforcing the present.

In this complicated and rapidly changing environment, the plight of smaller manufacturers is dire indeed. Over 98% of the country’s manufacturers fall into this category and very few of them have the resources to stay current and engage the best technology and techniques. These manufacturers need to be part of a networked community that includes experts as committed to their success as they are.

Fortunately, Wisconsin supports manufacturers and understands manufacturing’s importance to the state’s economy. Tight networks of education, government, economic development, and other aligned organizations support our manufacturers. The critical groups in that network work together well and are dedicated to creating results not just activity. The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity is proud to be one of these partners and an integral part of the network. Our connections with colleagues across the U.S. enable us to bring the best resources back home to Wisconsin.

Still, all of us must engage. The best solutions are not found in any one office, factory, classroom, or lab. A successful future requires the best thinking and great collaboration. That means finding ways to emerge from our bubbles and engage in new ways. Take advantage of the future. Be someone who surfs the tsunami!

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