Obstacles for U.S. Manufacturing Sector Expansion

By Bill May 

For many reasons, manufacturing companies are realizing the need to be closer to US customers. Companies’ goals to expand production capacity and increase efficiency – with strategies of On-shoring, Near-shoring, Re-shoring, De-globalization, De-coupling – will require the US to rise the challenge. However, there are obstacles in the path to significant manufacturing growth in the US. 

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In addition to the necessary capital investments, the obvious question becomes: Where are we going to find the tools, knowledge, and skills to support this type of manufacturing resurgence?

I suggest we examine these “obstacles” in categories of Innovation, Automation, and Experience-Share. 


Innovation: Design for Manufacturing  

Many people think of “innovation” in terms of product innovation that facilitates the concept, research, and design of new or improved products to meet customer demand. In the manufacturing industry, we must expand our focus to include manufacturing process innovation. In addition to satisfying the needs of its end user, a product must be “designed for manufacturing.” 

The complex process of a new product launch may include upward of 264 tasks from development to launch, with numerous responsible persons and interdependent timelines. Attention must be paid in the early stages of new product design to anticipate the manufacturing process requirements, costs, and constraints. The intention of “design for manufacturing” is to prevent failures. My team refers to risk assessment earlier in the planning process as fire prevention versus fire fighting when issues arrive during the manufacturing process. 

All OEMs have some level of problem with product launches. Recalls, complaints, and bulletins mean products must be redesigned, reengineered, or debut models – a lengthy, expensive, and credibility-damaging process. By introducing “design for manufacturing” innovation into product planning and development, we have the ability to reduce costs, improve quality, and minimize labor needs during the manufacturing process and subsequent delivery to market. 

Intentional, innovative planning that marries product design to the manufacturing process – such as Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) – allows even smaller manufacturing companies to achieve higher quality and lower costs. This approach applies to both new products and existing products that can be designed and manufactured better. 

As it relates to the current imperative (and trend) of expanding US production capacity and increasing efficiency, process innovation becomes a priority for increased domestic production and productivity gains.  


Automation: Advancing expansion 

Innovative processes and automation go hand-in-hand. Automation can improve efficiency and standardization. This becomes a major consideration in the “design for manufacturing” goal.  

Investing in automation does not necessarily require a huge financial commitment, which means automation is also accessible to small-to-medium manufacturers looking to standardize processes. As an example: a critical task such as scheduling can be automated using standard, low-cost software templating that vastly improves project management, simplifies reporting, and keeps production on track (for predictable throughput, meeting delivery schedule, and higher customer satisfaction).  

There are still labor requirements for automated robotic processes related to programming, operating (in some cases), and maintenance/repairs by knowledgeable and trained professionals. Benefits of automation are largely correlated to efficiency, standardization, and quality. It is also true that automation could ultimately be a means to cost reduction, and therefore increased profitability for the company. 

Automation is applicable to both physical processes (robotics) and management systems (computer/software/workflow). To deliver quality products more quickly to US customers, manufacturers should rely on process and systems automation to support its growth objectives. 


Experience-Share: Knowledge forward 

The US manufacturing sector took a major hit when manufacturing companies could find cheaper labor and materials overseas. Globalization of operations was a rationalized business decision. The size of the manufacturing labor force peaked in 1979 and began a decline. Over the decades that followed, with a shrinking number of manufacturing positions available, the more experienced manufacturing professionals either found employment in other fields or retired. Without promising career paths for trainees, educational opportunities in manufacturing also stalled.

If the US is to succeed in capturing the present manufacturing growth potential before us, we must lean on the knowledge and experience of older manufacturing professionals and retirees. It is through experience-share opportunities (mentoring, specialized position placement, consulting, etc.) that real-life lessons and hands-on best practices are passed on to the younger labor resources.  This transference of valuable experience is further supported by quality and readily available training and educational programs specific to manufacturing, technology, and engineering.  

As a personal observation in my circle of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances within the industry, retirees want to pass along their knowledge and skills after a long career in manufacturing facilities. Retirees want to share what they’ve learned, their successes and failures. They want to pay forward their training and professional experiences accumulated over 20-30-40+ years of working daily in the plant. Upon retirement, they may feel disappointment if they are not asked for insight, as though their career would not provide value to the next generation of manufacturing professionals.  Experience-share is important to both populations: experienced retirees and new professionals. And, it is essential to US manufacturing success, now and ongoing. 


We can do it. 

Preparation for anticipated growth in the US Manufacturing Sector requires private-public commitment to tackling these obstacles. Making Innovation, Automation, and Experience-Share priorities among all manufacturing stakeholders will successfully position the US and our workforce to accommodate growing market demand for US manufactured goods and to meet workforce requirements to deliver those goods with quality and speed.


At High Value Manufacturing, we realize manufacturing companies today struggle with several planning, operational, and resource challenges. As a world class manufacturing consulting firm, our goal is to help our Aerospace, Automotive, Defense and other manufacturing clients assess current operational issues, plan for future needs, provide concrete recommendations, and provide the skilled resources required for sustainable growth. HVM provides the combination of highly skilled and highly experienced resources to deliver the necessary technical support to achieve even your company’s most aggressive growth (On-Shoring, Near-Shoring, Reshoring, Deglobalization, De-coupling) strategies.  


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