The National Science and Technology Council’s new Strategy for American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing has ambitious goals around technology, the workforce, and the manufacturing supply chain.
By David R, Brousell
Success in manufacturing in the digital economy of the 21st century will depend upon a deft orchestration of industry, the academic community, and government working together to ensure that U.S. manufacturers can be competitive domestically and internationally.
Today, manufacturers are in the throes of transitioning to Manufacturing 4.0, the next stage of industrial progress based on digitization. The shift requires manufacturers of all sizes and from all sectors to embrace new operational, information, and production technologies, the combination of which will instigate significant changes in how work is performed and what roles and functions will be required in the workforce.
To support these new requirements, the academic community must re-tool to educate a new workforce for the digital era. Not only must the educational community help re-shape perceptions about the desirability of a career in manufacturing, it must also develop curricula to prepare people for technology-based jobs in manufacturing that did not exist a generation ago.
The critical role that government must play in the orchestration of a new competitive model for manufacturing is in some ways a traditional one: creating the conditions necessary for investment, innovation, and fair competition to flourish. But today, the stakes may be unprecedented as other nation states organize themselves for manufacturing dominance on the global stage.
Strategic Plan Updated
The U.S. federal government’s latest attempt to play its part in helping to make U.S. manufacturing more competitive took place in October of last year with the release of the “Strategy for American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing”, a strategy issued by the Subcommittee on Advanced Manufacturing, part of the Committee on Technology of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NSTC coordinates science and technology policy across the many federal entities involved with manufacturing.
The strategy, prepared pursuant to the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010, as amended, is the product of a requirement for the NSTC to develop and update a quadrennial national strategic plan for advanced manufacturing. The new strategic plan, the first under the quadrennial requirement, is designed to “ensure national security and economic prosperity”. It has three key goals: develop and transition new manufacturing technologies; educate, train, and connect the manufacturing workforce; and expand the capabilities of the domestic manufacturing supply chain.
The plan, which is now the official manufacturing strategy of the Trump Administration, was developed with input from a wide array of industry, academic, state and regional associations as well as various agencies of the federal government. The subcommittee, known by the acronym SAM, held 11 roundtables across the U.S. as part of its information gathering effort. The National Association of Manufacturers, now the parent of the Manufacturing Leadership Council, hosted a roundtable in Washington, D.C., last January.
“This strategic plan is motivated by the factors that impact innovation and competitiveness for advanced manufacturing,” the strategy said. “Rapid advances in technology, in combination with economic forces, are changing the ways products and services are conceived, designed, made, distributed, and supported.”
Risks to Achieving Leadership
U.S. manufacturers face a number of risks in the changing global business environment that the strategy attempts to address. Chief among these are private investment trends, education and skills, and international competition.
On the investment front, the strategy cites a decline in private investments in manufacturing-based technologies as an issue for U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. Instead of being manufacturing-focused, investors have turned to software-based start-ups to get a more rapid return on their money. “Manufacturing leadership in emerging markets, exports, and trade not only requires investments in advanced technologies, but the ability to effectively leverage new technologies and platforms across industrial sectors,” the strategy said.
In addition to the investment issue, the strategy warns about what it called the “sharp decline in production and employment” in the computer and communications industries, two sectors it cites as strategically important to the U.S. “America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base and supply chain, composed of these and other key sectors, is essential to economic prosperity and must maintain the capacity to rapidly innovate and arm our warfighters to prevail in any conflict,” the strategy said.
Moreover, the workforce skills and talent shortage issue facing U.S. manufacturing looms large, especially given projections by industry organizations, including the NAM’s Manufacturing Institute, that up to 2.2 million positions may be unfilled in the next few years, up considerably from the nearly 500,000 open jobs today.
The report cites a decline in private investments in manufacturing-based technologies as an issue for U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.
“Underlying all of the challenges for innovation and competitiveness in U.S. advanced manufacturing is a shortage of Americans with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowledge and technical skills needed for advanced manufacturing jobs,” the strategy said. “Appropriate education and training is required from elementary through high school, and through technical training programs, re-training, apprenticeships, postsecondary education, and access to valid, industry-recognized, competency-based credentials ….”
And on the global competition front, the strategy warns about “well organized” global competitors, but says that the U.S. must be prepared to defend its strengths in scientific and technological innovation.
“Pervasive networking and recent advances in machine learning, biotechnology, and materials science are creating new opportunities for global competition in manufacturing based on scientific and technological innovation,” the strategy said. “Although global competitors are well organized, as evidenced by the European Union’s Industrie 4.0 Programme and China’s Made in China 2025 Program, the United States still leads the world in scientific and technological innovation. American must protect and leverage this strength to rapidly and efficiently develop and transition new manufacturing technologies into practice within our domestic industrial base and international allies.”
Technical Priorities Identified
The strategy includes what it called a set of “strategic objectives” to each of the three goals it outlined in the strategy. Each objective also has a set of “technical priorities” that include actions or outcomes that need to be accomplished over the four-year period envisioned under the strategy document.
For example, the goal to Develop and Transition New Manufacturing Technologies has five objectives associated with it. They are to: capture the future of intelligent manufacturing systems; develop world-leading materials and processing technologies; assure access to medical products through domestic manufacturing; maintain leadership in electronics design and fabrication; and strengthen opportunities for food and agricultural manufacturing.
Under the objective of capturing the future of intelligent manufacturing systems, the technical priorities include smart and digital manufacturing; advanced industrial robotics, infrastructure for artificial intelligence; and cybersecurity in manufacturing.
The strategy said that information and communications technologies supporting smart and digital manufacturing have the potential to “capture tremendous new productivity gains”, but only if information technology systems can be successfully integrated with plant floor operational technologies. Right now, the strategy claims, current smart manufacturing implementations lack complete dependability and require improvements to enable the integration of design and manufacturing.
As it does with each of three primary goals, the strategy outlines specific actions that need to be undertaken. With regards to the smart and digital manufacturing objective, over the next four years the strategy calls for these actions: facilitating a digital transformation in manufacturing by enabling the application of big data analytics and advanced sensing and control technologies to a variety of manufacturing activities; prioritizing support for real-time modeling and simulation of production machines, processes, and systems to predict and improve product performance and reliability; mining historical design, production, and performance data to reveal product and process know-how; and developing standards to enable the integration between smart manufacturing components and platforms.
Right now, the strategy claims, current smart manufacturing implementations lack complete dependability.
The Challenges Ahead
Each of the specific actions under the smart and digital manufacturing objective are, of course, prodigious undertakings in their own right. The adoption of analytics technology in manufacturing companies alone will force major changes in how they conduct their decision-making processes and could threaten established power structures. Add in even a subset of the other actions and you have the makings of a sea change in manufacturing.
Overall, the strategy’s three major goals around advanced technologies, the workforce, and the supply chain can go a long way, if successfully implemented, in helping U.S. manufacturers successfully transition to the new way of doing business in the digital era. But the one missing piece, which the strategy really isn’t designed to address but nevertheless cannot be overlooked, is leadership. Manufacturing company leaders, as well as their counterparts in education and the government, must embrace the new with a sense of urgency that will effectively orchestrate pervasive change in the industry. The digital revolution, while often talked about in technological terms, requires changes in manufacturing company culture and human behavior, two factors that may be harder to effect change in than the technology itself.
And then, of course, the strategy’s three goals, 13 objectives, and 35 priorities all will need to be funded at some level if they are to take root. And the path to funding is not only complex — involving specific agency requests, involvement by the Office of Management and Budget, and the approval of Congress — but also time-consuming. On top of this, the NSTC faces the considerable challenge of effectively communicating the strategy to the manufacturing industry at large and educating industry about what the strategy calls for. As the strategy indicates, the private sector has to be the lead, but the government can provide support.
But there is hope – and something of a track record. Under the NSTC’s National Strategic Plan for Advanced Manufacturing published in February 2012, for example, the Manufacturing USA Institutes partnership program was created, resulting in the establishment of Institutes that are addressing 14 technologies, including additive manufacturing, digital manufacturing and design, and robotics. The strategy says that, according to a recent assessment, the Institutes “have significantly accelerated and de-risked the development of new technologies for U.S. manufacturers.”
That’s good news, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come. Devising and successfully implementing a federal government strategy to help advance manufacturing may be difficult, but what’s the alternative? As the old adage goes: no plan is a plan to fail. M