The manufacturing industry undergoes continual changes and cycles of expansion and contraction. Currently in the midst of a growth cycle in most regions of the world, the industry is showing major productivity gains with the introduction of new methods and technologies. These technologies create challenges as well as opportunities for increasing market share. Here are a few of the challenges with the most potential for disruption.

Additive Manufacturing

New manufacturing methods such as 3-D printing are forcing companies to rethink everything from the way they design products to the materials they use. 3-D printing requires engineers to think about creating their designs around empty space as opposed to the traditional method of considering a block of material and removing portions to make the required shape. This is such a fundamental shift in thinking that many classically trained engineers have trouble making the switch, and schools are scrambling to add courses to their curricula.

In addition, additive manufacturing enables rapid in-house prototyping that can shorten the time to market and protect intellectual property during critical design phases. Companies are investing in 3-D printers and embracing the changes.

Issues include the rapid advances in the technology. Adopting additive manufacturing quickly enables companies to get a jump on the benefits, but since equipment is evolving so rapidly, too much investment may saddle them with equipment that is quickly outpaced by newer models with higher speeds and more advanced capabilities.

New and unexpected technologies may give rise to a whole new wave of competitors from completely unknown sources.

Companies in industries such as injection molding that have large investments in existing capital equipment may resist making the change to avoid making existing tooling and equipment obsolete, but those companies that invest in adopting the new methods will be better positioned to service customers over both the long and short term.

Unexpected Sources of Competition

Many manufacturers believe they know who their competitors are. They think it’s the plastics molder across town or the low-wage region competing on price. Both views are short sighted. The reality is that most manufacturers don’t recognize who their real competition is.

New and unexpected technologies may give rise to a whole new wave of competitors from completely unknown sources. Just as additive manufacturing and 3-D printing took the industry somewhat by surprise because of the speed of technical advances and adoption, new technologies provide opportunities for new players to disrupt every industry.

Manufacturers need to be aware of every technical innovation, even those that seem too small or too futuristic to hurt them today, because the pace of technical advances increases every day. Nanotechnology, for example, has gone from a science-fiction topic to reality in only a few short years, and it is poised to create even more new opportunities. Nanotechnology will affect everything from clothing to medical devices.

Nanotechnology is already being used to deliver medications directly to the tumor site in cancer treatment and to provide clean, constant lubrication to eyes. The same principles may give rise to self-lubricating machinery and devices, or machines that dispatch a fleet of nanoparticles to repair themselves before breakdowns occur. Company service teams will need to rethink their relevance when equipment ships with tiny, self-contained repair capabilities.

In The Spotlight

Lack of Technical Skills

New technologies such as these mean that our educational systems are already behind the times in many ways. Companies need to work with community leaders and universities to ensure that the educational system provides the right combination of skills and technical knowledge to ensure a steady supply of workers and engineers who understand these new ways of creating and servicing products.

In addition, companies may want to consider investing in internal training to familiarize existing employees with new technologies, and to foster and reward in-house innovation. A formal mentoring program to pass down hard-won skills from aging workers to newer members of the workforce will help to ensure that a company has a solid grounding in both new and old manufacturing methods so that it can select the best technology for each product and customer.

Customer Expectations

Customer expectations continue to challenge manufacturers. Today, many customers expect very short lead times even for customized products. They expect rapid delivery of prototypes and streamlined order cycles for production runs.

Traditional manufacturers in complex industries such as injection molding or metal forming may struggle with the ability to schedule their shops to provide rapid delivery while maintaining high quality standards. Aging infrastructure and equipment amplifies the difficulty.

To meet expectations, companies need to invest in improving their business systems to ensure frictionless flow of information from the customer to the shop floor. In addition, keeping equipment well maintained and up to date will increase throughput and reduce or eliminate unplanned downtime. Investing in new equipment that enables the adoption of new techniques such as 3-D printing will also be key to long-term success.


Steve Erickson
About The Author Steve Erickson
Steve Erickson is Vice President of Sales and Engineering at First American Plastic, a molding enterprise located in South Beloit, IL that provides injection molding and 3D printing services to the manufacturing industry.

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