Most U.S. manufacturers are facing a serious shortage of workers, and that deficit of human capital is expected to grow to 2 million in 2025. Yet, we continue to hear stories about American factories closing, more people out of work, and small communities struggling with high unemployment.
On one hand, manufacturing companies say they can’t hire fast enough, while on the other, communities claim that these jobs are going away. How can both things be true?
If you think back to the pre-industrial age, this problem couldn’t exist. Most people didn’t “work” for an employer, they worked to survive. Whether it was farming, blacksmithing or shoemaking, individuals worked to meet their personal needs and those of their local community.
Then, during the Industrial Revolution, we saw the consolidation of work — namely, in factories. This enabled significant improvements in efficiency and led to the creation of much more complex products: the automobile, for example.
Yet, much like centralized economies, the consolidation of work has led to inefficiencies in labor supply and demand.
Currently, when a manufacturer wants to open a new factory, they search for a site, and in many cases, select a rural area that has a good supply of available workers and lower-cost real estate. This cements the local community’s dependence on this factory and ties their fates together.
Unfortunately, when the inevitable shift in the market decreases demand for the factory’s product and causes the business to fail — or advancements like technological innovation disrupts the industry more broadly — the local community suffers.
And why? Precisely because of the concentrated dependence on the factory (hence, the familiar phrase “one-factory town”). So, when manufacturing workers say there aren’t any factory jobs, it’s just that there aren’t any in their community.
One solution would be to massively decentralize the way we produce goods, moving from monolithic factories to small, local and flexible manufacturing centers. And that’s not some futuristic pipe dream, either. We’re seeing the next generation of manufacturing play out in new companies that leverage 3D printing, robotics, computer vision and other cutting-edge technologies to expand the realm of what’s possible.
But how would micro-factories ever match the gains in efficiency of traditional manufacturing? Such small-scale operations can’t amortize the investment in components and machines needed for production over a large number of units, as manufacturers do now. Plus, a facility that produces different products would need the right equipment for each one.
Companies like VulcanForms promise to eliminate machine tooling altogether. The Boston-based company is commercializing a highly scalable, high-volume production system for metal additive manufacturing.
A decade from now, new graduate engineers will be puzzled by how everyday objects were made in the past without additive manufacturing, say VulcanForms Co-Founder and CEO Martin Feldmann and Anupam Ghildyal, the company’s vice president for corporate development.
“The geopolitical climate has ensured that there will be a massive focus on keeping and re-gaining advanced manufacturing competence and capacity locally, at least for the next few decades,” Feldmann says. “This will be driven by small footprint, standardized, multifunctional, and easy to operate technologies such as additive manufacturing. VulcanForms’ mission is to lead this fundamental transformation of the manufacturing supply chain for high-value, metal additive serial and mass production.”
Lack of flexibility has hurt manufacturing in other ways, too. Historically, the assembly process has been confined by the narrowly trained skill of the worker on the line. It has also been limited by the fact that most mechanical equipment on factory floors today are programmed to do discrete tasks: grab, bolt, stamp, etc.
Now, imagine an “intelligent” machine with computer vision, a precision gripper and a full suite of capabilities for assembling a highly sophisticated product like a smartphone.
No need to imagine. This “microfactory” is, in fact, the flagship product of a company led by Amar Hanspal, the former co-CEO and chief product officer at Autodesk. San Francisco-based Bright Machines currently has more than 30 of its micro-factories in place at 20 manufacturing sites across Asia, Europe and North America.
And that’s the point. The software intelligence of these systems created by companies like VulcanForms and Bright Machines enables the global sharing of the specialized knowledge to build these products — anywhere. We no longer need to concentrate all the workers and machinery into large factories.
Think of it: a future where each city manufactures its own products, grows its own food once again … perhaps even builds its own iPhones?
“Intelligent automation is driving an important shift in manufacturing away from the globalization we’ve seen in recent decades, to a more localized approach,” says Hanspal, CEO at Bright Machines. “Microfactories enable an entirely distributed manufacturing operation made up of smaller, more nimble and flexible factories building products closer to where the customers are so they can better serve local needs.”
Envision a future when companies across the country adopt these systems to, once again, create products for their local markets. Now, if one company shuts down, people who know how to operate these systems have more options for employment closer to home than today’s factory worker.
And wouldn’t it be poetic if the dismantling and decentralizing of giant factories across America reverses the trend toward urbanization? Distributed work would allow people to live away from large cities without foregoing opportunities for employment — and maybe even start to mend the urban-rural divide that’s polarizing our nation.
In the face of increasing criticism about technology’s toxic effects on civic life, these innovations just may have the potential to preserve communities and reinvigorate forgotten regions of the country.
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