The buzzword of business in 2013 appears to be “in-sourcing.”  After more than a decade of outsourcing U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas, there has been a resurgent American manufacturing industry thanks to the increasingly symbiotic relationship between design and manufacturing.

As millions of students graduate college this month, set to embark on careers that will take them through the middle of the 21st century, it seems an opportune time to discuss the skillsets needed to ensure the Industrial Internet fulfills its promise and the American manufacturing industry truly enjoys a sustained re-birth in the forms of agile, automated, and additive.

Make no mistake about it.  The manufacturing of tomorrow is nothing like the manufacturing of yesterday.  Our parents or grandparents could look at a blueprint for a component to a car and then move forward to using machine and milling tools to grind, bend, mold, and weld metal.  Jobs were very specialized with engineers designing and line workers manufacturing.

Enter a world where the lines between design, testing and manufacturing are increasingly blurred.  Advances in robotics and 3D printing are creating a whole new virtual realm that allows us to more efficiently and creatively manufacture in the physical world.  In the past, designers resided in the U.S. and Europe with cheap manufacturing taking place in Asia.  However, the real game changer is the ability that computer science and use of virtual models is giving us to perform mass customization through agile manufacturing.  The design and manufacturing processes separated by oceans now miss the opportunity for tight design/production iterations leading to tremendous flexibility.  Manufacturing and design needs to be much more flexible with the ability to tightly re-iterate.

So, all of these changes spurred by new implementations of computer science are providing tremendous opportunities for U.S. manufacturing.  At the same time, they also present a major challenge:  providing a skilled labor force capable of meeting the growing demand of companies of all shapes, sizes and industries.  Advanced manufacturing requires skilled workers capable of understanding and using CAD/CAM design programs as well as the actual manufacturing equipment.

So where are we going to find or develop these workers?
GE CEO Jeff Immelt recently discussed how everyone needs to be able to interact with digital equipment, applying both computing and manufacturing skills.  ”It’s going to be more multi-faceted,” he said, “Emerging areas such as 3-D printing are ‘game-changing technology’. It’s going to be done in a manufacturing setting, but it’s going to have to be by people that are facile in both ends of that.”

We don’t need all of our computer science professionals to be able to invent a computer language.  We need them to understand computer languages.  That is the reality of factory floor jobs today as manufacturing employs more #BrilliantMachines, we need to teach humans – across a broad range of work responsibilities – to speak to and instruct the machines in their tasks.

Augmenting the traditional bachelors and graduate degrees, our community college systems provide a wealth of opportunities.  They are ubiquitous, agile, intimately tied to local businesses and not bound by the bureaucratic restraints placed on many K-12 schools and four-year universities and the White House is betting on them. Not only are they a pathway to invigorating the middle class, but also often central to re-educating workers as technology alters the skills needed in the workforce.

So what can we do?
Many top U.S. students and their parents have logically avoided computing and manufacturing careers, believing these jobs have moved to low cost developing countries.  And perceptions around the nature of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs have additionally stifled interest. As a result, we must:

  • Provide a clear vision for the future employment landscape.  We must ensure that there is full understanding of the role that STEM plays.  By 2018, more than 71% of STEM jobs will be in the area of computing.
  • Be creative.  Look at alternative means of educating our work force.  In addition to the opportunities offered in training or re-training through the community colleges, advances in distance learning, “flip classrooms” and open courses from top universities are changing access to education.
  • Reduce the Gender Gap.  Just 14% of women are interested in STEM careers, as opposed to nearly 40% of men.  The beauty of computing and advanced manufacturing is a true reliance on creativity, cross-disciplinary engagement, social collaborations and art.

[Refs : US-BLS Employment Projections, 2008-2018]

Automation is often linked to job losses.  However, when we envision a future with possibilities that get us excited about what can be designed, created and manufactured; we can imagine the possibilities little better than the people of the horse-and-cart era could see beyond the possibilities automobiles would enable.  Advanced manufacturing seems likely to lead to a transformation of our nation’s work force creating a potential diversity of high-paying, high-skilled jobs the nature of which has not yet even been “invented.”

Rick Arthur was the first Computer Engineer graduate from Clarkson University.  He also holds Masters in Engineering (Software Systems Engineering) from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from The University at Albany.  Arthur, a 20+ year GE veteran, is a member of the U.S. Council on Competiveness’ High Performance Computing Advisory Council. Arthur’s Twitter handle is @arthurrge.

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