Why the Skills Gap Might Not Be Manufacturing's Biggest Problem
Ian Wright posted on November 22, 2016 |
NIST studies show closing tech gaps could save US manufacturers over $100 billion annually.
NIST engineer Jeremy Marvel adjusts a robotic arm used to study human-robot interactions. According to a NIST economic study on advanced robotics and automation—one of four reports on advanced manufacturing—Marvel's work is the type of research needed to fortify and facilitate this emerging field. (Image courtesy of Fran Webber/NIST.)
NIST engineer Jeremy Marvel adjusts a robotic arm used to study human-robot interactions. According to a NIST economic study on advanced robotics and automation—one of four reports on advanced manufacturing—Marvel's work is the type of research needed to fortify and facilitate this emerging field. (Image courtesy of Fran Webber/NIST.)
We’ve heard a lot about the STEM skills gap in America, particularly—though not exclusively—in the manufacturing sector. With this month’s unexpected election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, questions about the future of American manufacturing seem all the more pressing.

So what does the future look like for America’s STEM workforce? The most prevalent answer seems to be that the digital factory needs skilled workers, not just new technologies. In other words, the future of American manufacturing depends on closing the skills gap.

However, a new series of studies from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that American manufacturers also need to rectify unmet needs for measurement science and “proof-of-concept” demonstrations of emerging technologies. Doing so could save over USD $100 billion annually, according to NIST.

Could the future of American manufacturing really depend on closing the tech gap?


The Tech Gap in Manufacturing

The four NIST studies focused on four manufacturing technologies:

  1. Additive Manufacturing
  2. Robotics and Automation
  3. Roll-to-Roll Manufacturing
  4. Smart/Digital Manufacturing

Using data collected through interviews and surveys with researchers, developers, manufacturers and other stakeholders, each of the four studies identifies 5 to 10 critical technical barriers to the adoption of its specific manufacturing technology. The studies also estimate the impacts of eliminating those obstacles and define which needs should be met first to accomplish this.

For example, establishing industry-wide standards and measurements for the inks and substrates used in roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing—the fabrication of electronic devices on a roll of flexible plastic or metal—is projected to reduce production costs by 15 percent.

Likewise, the development and adoption of verified reference data, robust measurement technologies and testing protocols and standardized modeling and finishing methods could yield some $4 billion in annual benefits and savings for additive manufacturing, according to the NIST study.

The two largest predicted cost savings were for the smart/digital manufacturing and advanced robotics and automation sectors. According to NIST, in order to achieve these savings, small- and medium-sized manufacturers need access to the same advanced methods, tools and knowledge as their larger counterparts.

The studies give the following estimated annual cost savings and percentage reduction in production costs for each technology if manufacturers were to close the tech gap:

  • Additive manufacturing: $4.1 billion, 18.3 percent
  • Advanced robotics and automation: $40.1 billion, 5.3 percent
  • Roll-to-roll manufacturing: $400 million, 14.7 percent
  • Smart manufacturing: $57.4 billion, 3.2 percent

The researchers have also stated that their studies only looked at benefits directly attributable to closing the identified technical gaps in each sector, which means that these the impact estimates are conservative.

“If we consider the larger-scale outcomes brought about by meeting these needs—such as new and improved products, increased production quality, long-term industry growth and job creation—the impacts would be significantly higher,” said NIST economist Gary Anderson, coordinator of the studies, which were prepared by RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute.

The researchers have said that their studies offer support for several key strategies for overcoming the tech gaps, including keeping standards and performance measures non-proprietary, using public research institutions to develop those tools so that small- and medium-sized manufacturers can access them.

“Our studies emphasize that full economic impact will only be realized if all technical needs are met, and all stakeholders regardless of size, not just large manufacturers, can share in the rewards,” Anderson said.

 

The Skills Gap and the Tech Gap

So, is the tech gap really as bad (or worse) than the skills gap?

Keep in mind, we’re dealing in hypotheticals here: weighing the potential benefits of developing technologies against those of training a purely conjectural workforce. Answering the question is further complicated by the fact that these two issues are deeply interconnected.

What good is better manufacturing tech if you don’t have employees who know how to use it? Conversely, what good is better technical training if the majority of those who receive it never have the opportunity to apply it?

To be sure, closing the tech gap would seem to be a less daunting task than closing the skills gap—and if there’s one thing engineers understand, it’s how to solve problems with technology. Addressing the skills gap is less straightforward, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more difficult.

So, what do you think is holding American manufacturing back: lack of tech, lack of talent or both?

Comment below.

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