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From soaring prices to empty shelves, the fragility of our global supply chain has been exposed by two years of disruption caused by COVID-19 shutdowns, geopolitical tensions and rising energy costs. The increasing risk of extreme climate events, such as this summer’s heat waves and catastrophic floods, are having real, devastating impacts on diverse sectors from agriculture to manufacturing.
These disruptions are not one-off events. They are an inherent risk of a global just-in-time manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure that is more vulnerable than previously thought. However, restoring domestic production appears to be an uphill battle. After all, how can manufacturers in the US – or any other country – beat hyper-efficient low-cost competitors, especially when dealing with an ongoing skills shortage at home?
Instead of continuing to rely on low-cost solutions, it is time to switch to high-tech. A new class of advanced technologies, including robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing and augmented reality (AR), now promise to transform manufacturing. By adopting these solutions, US manufacturers can improve efficiencies, increase productivity and scale expertise while attracting a new, younger generation of workers seeking accessible careers at the forefront of technology. The result: A nationwide network of sophisticated manufacturers that create robust jobs, deliver essential goods, and protect the economy and consumers from future supply chain disruptions.
While the “fourth industrial revolution” has been discussed for some time, the technology is finally catching up with the hype. Many of these solutions are available today, and the need for this technology has never been clearer.
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Embracing AR and virtual training
About 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the US over the past three decades. Workers naturally turned to other industries, leading to the growing lack of manufacturing skills we are now witnessing. Today, more than 80% of manufacturers say attracting and retaining high-quality talent is a priority, especially with an imminent wave of retirements among their most senior professionals. Overall, the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that the skills gap could result in 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the US by 2030.
Technology solutions can bridge the gap, driving both operational efficiencies and employee upskilling. For example, augmented reality (AR)-based knowledge capture applications allow experienced workers to record complex procedures as they complete them, and then share those instructions in real time for trainees to follow. This process creates a virtual training program in the real world where new employees can experience the process of assembling a complex part without the risk of it resulting in scrap and thousands of dollars in cost to the company.
The efficiency gains can be dramatic. PBC Linear, a manufacturer of linear motion products, recently used this solution to reduce training time from three weeks to three days while realizing annual savings of 20% through more accurate and efficient operations.
The new industrial IoT
And AR is just one example. The Industrial Internet of Things can streamline quality control, monitor equipment performance, and guide predictive maintenance. Linking robotics in a cloud-based solution can reduce unexpected production disruptions. Two-thirds of US manufacturers are already using 3D printing in some way, from prototyping to mass production. And as these technologies are adopted, linked, analyzed and optimized, they will unlock even greater business value.
US companies can lead this transformation, with far-reaching benefits for workers, communities and the economy. Manufacturing jobs tend to offer higher wages and better benefits than other sectors, especially for workers without a college degree. When advanced technologies are integrated, these jobs also have the appeal and status of working in a highly innovative industry. This could start a virtuous cycle, attracting more people into an engaged, skilled workforce that can drive further technological advances.
A stable global supply chain
More domestic manufacturing would also help mitigate the impact of future supply chain disruptions. Domestic manufacturers can mitigate the risk of critical shortages like we saw in personal protective equipment early in the pandemic and alleviate the everyday pain at the checkout caused by a convoluted global supply chain. Bipartisan lawmakers have recognized this need, and politics can play a crucial role. But efficient, competitive and sophisticated manufacturers are ultimately the safest solution.
The last two years have urgently raised new questions about how our world works, including the wisdom of a supply chain that stretches around the world and assumes stability in every part of it. The reorientation toward high-tech, domestic manufacturing offers a more resilient path while creating attractive jobs in communities across the country.
For US manufacturers, the greatest promise lies in the advanced technologies poised to increase efficiencies, attract talent and level the playing field.
Daniel Diez is Chief Marketing Officer at Magic Leap, which specializes in augmented reality technology.
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