Manufacturing Renaissance Requires Automation

May 9, 2013
The Great Debate Continues: Is the American Sector on Its Way Back or Do Recent Gains Still Fall Short of a Rebirth?
About the Author
Paul J. Galeski, P.E., CAP, is CEO and Founder of Maverick Technologies, an engineering and system integration firm based in Columbia, Ill.If you haven't been following the great debate over the status of American manufacturing, rest assured it's as heated as ever. Some argue the sector is finally on its way back after decades of shrinking. Others feel the recent gains still fall short of a true rebirth on American soil. I'm in the first camp. I hope to have you convinced by the time you finish reading this, but until then, let's all agree that this is an extremely exciting time in the U.S. manufacturing field — a field that will only continue to grow as more manufacturers realize everything the U.S. has to offer.

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So what's generating all the excitement? Capital is becoming more readily available. The cost of imports continues to rise. Demand for custom-manufactured products is surging. Our land, energy and telecommunication costs are lower than in most other advanced countries. Our business infrastructure and intellectual property rights are significantly more developed. And we're one of the world's lowest-cost producers of raw materials — including oil and gas. Add the fact that it creates jobs, increases competitiveness and improved manufacturing environment, and you have plenty of reasons to consider this a rebirth, not a fad.

So why the skeptics? Despite all the benefits and substantial investment in manufacturing processes, the U.S. still is losing some of its manufacturing base. While that's a legitimate struggle, it's a struggle no one in this industry has to face alone. We can continue to be frustrated in our efforts to keep and grow jobs, or we can take control of our own destiny, and work together to invest in technology and develop our workforce, which will subsequently preserve our manufacturing base.

The first thing business leaders must understand is that a real manufacturing renaissance will need to be driven by industrial automation and applied technology. Automation initiatives often have the largest return on investment, and can impact the bottom line most quickly. The opportunities are abundant—but only if we can find the manpower to build business cases, develop and design solutions, and implement projects on budget and on time. Today's U.S. manufacturers already are technology leaders, but long-term success will require these companies to also become automation leaders. In order to make this transition, manufacturers must recognize that technology is a tool used in the production process.

In my opinion, the shortage of skilled professionals continues to be the biggest hurdle in reshoring. Forty percent of today's automation professionals are expected to retire in the next five years, and we're not prepared to replace them. There are very few formal education programs for students to receive the training they would need to pursue careers in automation. Perhaps our greatest challenge is that many aspiring engineers perceive the field of automation as less desirable than other seemingly more impressive vocations such as software development or medical technology.

It will take some time to overcome our limited growth factors in the automation field, but the future of our manufacturing base depends on it. And it is up to us as leaders in automation to bring new blood into the workforce. I strongly urge you to consider some of the following ways to do it:

Encourage young people. We need to be role models for the next generation. Talk to students at local schools. Get them thinking about possible careers in automation — we know it's a rewarding and exciting field.

Recruit new blood. Don't limit yourself to traditional recruiting methods. Seek out new opportunities. Start fishing in new lakes.

Retain the professionals you have. The average automation career tops out quickly. A fast climb of the ladder can lead automation professionals to begin looking outside the field for new opportunities. We need to offer innovative ways for workers to continue to grow and develop within the automation field.

As industry leaders, we hold the key to the future of manufacturing automation in the U.S. No one else is going to develop our field if we don't. We need to start early, telling our youth about careers in automation. We need to recruit young talent right out of college. And once we have skilled professionals on our teams, we need to keep them by continually challenging and rewarding them. These are the people who will drive innovation — not just for us, but for our nation.

The opportunities are all around us. It is time to seize them before it's too late.