Meeting Manufacturing's Needs

The U.S. producers of advanced manufacturing technology continue to be world leaders in the creation and production of machine tools that make modern innovation possible. But as we approach our biennial IMTS in Chicago, two words of advice for our industry’s leaders come to mind: Suit up! We have looming before us

The U.S. producers of advanced manufacturing technology continue to be world leaders in the creation and production of machine tools that make modern innovation possible. But as we approach our biennial IMTS in Chicago, two words of advice for our industry’s leaders come to mind: Suit up!

We have looming before us an enormous opportunity that presents an even greater challenge: The global demand for ever-more-productive manufacturing technology is accelerating, and those who fail to meet it will fail—period. So when I say, “suit up,” I’m not only talking to today’s leaders of our industry—I’m also thinking about tomorrow’s.

For the past 30 years, manufacturing technology productivity increases have been technology driven rather than labor driven—from the advent of CNC machine tools to robotics and multi-axis machining centers. It is clear that throughout the world, technological innovation will continue to drive productivity increases.

But it still takes people to conceive, design and build new technology, whether it is merely evolutionary or truly innovative and disruptive. As we approach the end of the 21st century’s first decade, the future of our industry’s intellectual capital is something we all should be concerned about.

The United States is producing more college graduates than ever, but advanced manufacturing technology is not capturing them. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 81,610 engineering and engineering technologies undergraduate degrees were awarded in 2005-2006. However, that accounts for only 5.5 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded that academic year. And of those 81,610 degrees, a mere 3,072 were for industrial engineering and 285 for manufacturing engineering.

Our share of graduate-level degree earners is even worse. In that same academic year, 594,065 master’s degrees were earned. Of those, 33,530—only 1.3 percent—were in engineering and engineering technologies; for industrial engineering, 1,857; and manufacturing engineering, 255.

A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that from 2003 to 2008, only 4.3 percent of MBA earners chose manufacturing as the industry they wanted to work in.

As important as it is for American manufacturing to restock the talent pool for design, engineering, production management and business leadership, we also must address the brain drain on the factory floor. Automation has driven our productivity gains during the past 30 years, requiring less manpower. But people are still critical to the process. We have a whole generation of savvy, highly experienced professionals retiring, and we cannot replace them all with robots and computers.

What are our prospects with high school graduates? The U.S. Department of Education reports that we have about 2.3 million students enrolled in tech prep programs. But the availability of these programs for America’s young people remains limited: Almost half of the nation’s public high schools do not provide their students career/technical education opportunities.

Thus, with fewer young people entering the workforce over the next several years, we must do more to excite their imaginations about manufacturing and attract them to our industry.

Here’s where the call to suit up comes in. Each of us must do whatever we can to get America’s young people educated—and excited—about the myriad career opportunities available in manufacturing.

Chicago in September is a good place to start. This year’s IMTS not only will include a Student Summit to encourage career consideration of the metalworking industry, but the Emerging Technology Center (ETC) will feature the first public demonstration of MTConnect that soon could enable different types of machines to communicate with each other and share data via a common standard. MTConnect promises to be the type of disruptive technology that could produce the next great leap in productivity that 21st century manufacturing will demand and our workforce of tomorrow will need to innovate around.

This is exciting, and when combined with the 2.2 million square feet of robots, five-axis machining centers and the thousands of other innovative products on display, Chicago’s McCormick Center from September 8 to 13 can be the place dreams are made for young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

So, my request to you is this: When you come to IMTS this year, bring one young person and make an effort to inspire him or her. Then, when you go home, think about what you and your company can do every day—such as work to expand the availability of career/tech education, or scholarships for manufacturing study—to ensure we have the talent to keep doing what America does better than anyone: make modern innovation possible.