The future of manufacturing can be a complicated subject. There are market forces to understand, new technologies that have to be explored, new skills and job roles that have to be identified and filled, and — oh, yes — careers that need to be built along the way.

But what makes the task of dealing with all of these layers today more daunting than usual is that the manufacturing industry faces a potentially disruptive confluence of events. Baby boomers in the manufacturing workforce are retiring and replacements among younger generations must be attracted, hired and retained. At the same time, new technologies are entering the manufacturing sphere that will rewrite the rules of production, the types of products made, and how companies are structured and make decisions.

And if all of this is not enough, the industry is still dealing with an image –demonstrably a myth, many would point out — of being an unattractive place to work, a dark, dirty, and dangerous career choice that doesn’t pay as well as other sectors.

These were some of the main topics of speakers and discussions at the 7th annual Women in Manufacturing Summit, which was held in Hartford, CT, under the theme of “Unified in Manufacturing”. About 300 female manufacturing professionals gathered to hear inspirational keynotes on subjects such as building a personal brand, to engage in a workshop to improve problem-solving skills, to attend plant tours, and to participate in breakout sessions around advanced technologies, leadership and professional development, operational excellence, and diversity and inclusion.

Leaders from the political world also attended the conference to inspire attendees with their personal stories and to urge companies to work together to solve common problems. These included Mary Burke, the first woman in Wisconsin history to win a nomination for governor of a major party, who now runs a start-up company called Building Brave; Elizabeth Esty, a member of Congress from the 5thdistrict of Connecticut; and Steny Hoyer, who has served as the representative from Maryland’s 5th Congressional district since 1981 and is currently the House Democratic Whip.

Christina McKenna, a former television news reporter who founded and now runs Bluestone Executive Communications, based in Birmingham, MI, urged attendees to build their personal brand by identifying key personal strengths and attributes, dressing for success, helping other people, practicing good manners, and, in particular, not doing things like trash talking or “needlessly apologizing” that can undermine a brand.

“Figure out what you are good at and do your very best at it,” McKenna said. “And don’t kid yourself that hard work is enough.”

On the talent issue, Dr. Lorinda Lewis, senior director of continuous improvement at Oshkosh Corp., a manufacturer of specialty vehicles, outlined the workforce issue facing most if not all manufacturing companies today. She said the industry expects to have more than three million open jobs over the next 10 years, and that as many as two million will go unfilled due to skills shortages.

Right now, she noted, 40% of the available workforce comes from the ranks of millennials, but that by 2025, this group will make up 70% of the workforce. “They want white collar careers,” Lewis said. “Twenty-five percent of parents think manufacturing is low paid. And ninety-one percent [of millennials] want to leave their organizations within two years.”

Lewis recommended that manufacturers take a “heat map” approach to planning their workforces by identifying critical job roles and functions, defining a roadmap to fill them, and engaging around an idea born at Stanford University called “Collective Impact”, which advocates a collaborative approach to dealing with problems.

The challenge of instilling a culture of continuous improvement was the subject of a talk by Siobhan Pandya, director of continuous improvement and lean at Mary Kay, Inc., the cosmetics manufacturer, whose Dallas, Texas, plant produces 1.1 million units a day from 22 different product lines.

Mary Kay’s challenge, Pandya said, was complexity across three dimensions – products, processes, and organization. Mary Kay has a broad range of products; many steps and handoffs in its processes; and a number of facilities, functional groups, assets, systems, and policies.

To tackle these issues, Mary Kay adopted what it calls its PERFECT Process. The acronym stands for Predictable, Effective, Repeatable, Flexible, Efficient, Communicated, and Transparent. Cultural change, leadership alignment, and standard methods and tools were among the key practices and policies that had to be put in place to make the PERFECT Process work, she said.

In a talk entitled “The Growing Digital Intensity of Manufacturing”, Dr. Irene Petrick, director of business strategy for the Industrial and Energy Solutions Division of Intel, said that the industry is on a 10-year journey to a future in which factories and plants will be highly flexible and efficient, where equipment will increasingly be operated and managed by software, and in which production systems will be integrated and self-aware.

Right now, though, most of the industry is not connected, Petrick said. But the adoption of predictive maintenance and machine learning technology as well as the Internet of Things networking and data generation technologies will change this over time, she said.

The key to digitizing manufacturing, she emphasized, is a combination of technology and people. “Digitizing manufacturing takes tech smarts and people smarts,” Petrick said. “It is no longer enough to be an expert in one thing. You will have to reach across boundaries.”

The Internet of Things was the subject of a breakout session, at which Heather Preu, vice president of Worldwide Connected Operations at IBM’s Watson Internet of Things, told attendees that the economic benefit of IoT is estimated to be $11 trillion by 2025.

But since 80% of the data being collected today is not yet being reviewed and analyzed, she said, the task before the industry is moving to a predictive model of data analysis, from a reactive posture today.

She said IoT will establish the basis for Manufacturing 4.0. The ML Council defines M4.0 as “ … the next stage of industrial progress, enabling mass customization on a global scale by factories and plants that are extensively networked, software-driven, intelligent, autonomous, and information-intensive.”

As companies and the industry as a whole moves up the maturity curve in the use of advanced technologies such as analytics, what will emerge is what Preu described as the “Cognitive IoT”, which will be characterized by active learning, continuous adaptation, and the generation of insights.