(Editor’s note: The following guest column was excerpted from Michele Nash-Hoff’s recent blog titled, “The Future of American Manufacturing.”)
While the state of American manufacturing has been grim for the past decade, the “reshoring” trend and new technologies are making the outlook for the future of American manufacturing look brighter than it now appears.
In the past few years, the key factors for returning manufacturing to America have been quality problems, rising labor costs, intellectual property theft, rising shipping costs, long lead times for product delivery from Asia, and the cost of inventory for the larger lots you have to buy from Asia to get the cheaper prices. Now, Harry Moser’s “Total Cost of Ownership” worksheet calculator is helping companies quantify the hidden costs of doing business offshore enabling more companies to make the decision to reshore manufacturing.
According to Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative,” 1 about 10% of companies nationwide are bringing manufacturing back to America from Asia. It is a pleasure to read frequent stories, even about large companies such as Dow Chemicals, Caterpillar, GE, and Ford starting to move some manufacturing back to the U.S. from China. However, “rising costs and political pressure aren’t what’s going to rapidly change the equation,” noted Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University. “The disruption will come from a set of technologies that are advancing at exponential rates and converging. These technologies include robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, and nanotechnology. These have been moving slowly so far, but are now beginning to advance exponentially [much like] computing.”
In the past, large American food product companies such as General Mills and Kraft Foods, as well as the automotive industry, have been the biggest users of complex robotic systems. But today’s robots are smaller and cheaper—they are really specialized electromechanical devices run by software and remote control designed to perform specific tasks in the manufacturing of products for a variety of industries. These robots are cost effective for lower production volume than those used in the food and automotive industry, enabling more companies to utilize this technology.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is really the software that makes computers, robots, and even unmanned aircraft and space vehicles run in an “intelligent” manner. Unmanned vehicles have dominated the sky in the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now being used to provide surveillance along our international border with Mexico. The unmanned rover, “Curiosity,” currently traversing the surface of Mars, is an example of the latest AI technology.
Additive Manufacturing is loosely defined as “the process of producing parts by successive melting of layers of material rather than removing material,” as is the case with conventional machining. Each layer is melted to the exact geometry defined by a 3D CAD model. Additive manufacturing allows for building parts with very complex geometries without any sort of tools or fixtures, and without producing any waste material.
This process, also known as 3D printing, is turning product designs into reality for a fraction of the cost of past manufacturing technologies. The application of this technology started as a way to make prototypes faster and cheaper. What is great about parts made by this process is that they are not just the fragile prototype parts previously made by stereo lithography technology; parts made by 3D printing can function as production parts.
A simple tabletop 3D printing device, such MakerBot’s Replicator, is now down to about $1,700 for use in home workshops, making the technology more accessible to students, researchers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, hobbyists, inventors and entrepreneurs.
Millions of dollars of government-funded research in additive manufacturing has led to breakthroughs and cost reduction in the utilization of this technology. Large, complex geometry parts that had to be made by casting and forging with expensive tooling are now being made by laser sintering of metals such as tool steel, stainless steel, cobalt chrome-moly, and other steel alloys. While selective laser sintering (SLS) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) began as a way to build parts early in the design cycle, it is now being used to manufacture end-use parts. Depending on the material, up to 100% density can be achieved with material properties comparable to those found with traditional manufacturing methods.
There are many applications for the laser sintering method of additive manufacturing in the aerospace and defense industry because of the low volume requirements. (The cost of amortizing expensive casting and forging tooling into low volume production was the main reason for the $600 hammers and $900 toilet seats of the defense spending scandals 20 years ago.) Even the tooling to make simple injection molded plastic parts can now be made by this technology, helping keep some plastic injection molding work in the U.S. that used to go to China.
We are just beginning to see advances in nanotechnology that will affect manufacturing in the next decade. Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to “nanotech”) is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally, nanotechnology works with materials, devices, and other structures with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers.
Since the creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative2 in 2000, the U.S. has invested $3.7 billion. Today, engineers and scientists are developing new types of materials, such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites, and new carbon fibers. These new materials are stronger, lighter, more energy-efficient, and more durable than current materials in use. These advances in technology will be a real boon to the U.S. manufacturing industry in the next 5–10 years.
1. The Reshoring Initiative, founded by Harry Moser in 2010, is an industry-led effort to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. The initiative works with U.S. manufacturers to help them recognize their profit potential as well as the critical role they play in strengthening the economy by utilizing local sourcing and production. American companies often don’t consider all of the costs involved in sending their manufacturing offshore, such as inventory carrying costs, traveling costs to check on suppliers, intellectual property risks and opportunity costs from product pipelines being too long. The Reshoring Initiative takes direct action by helping U.S. manufacturers realize that local production and sourcing often reduce their total cost of ownership of purchased parts and tooling. The Initiative also trains suppliers to demonstrate to these manufacturers the economic advantages of local sourcing. Visit www.reshorenow.org more information.
2. The National Nanotechnology Initiative involves the nanotechnology-related activities of 25 Federal agencies, 15 of which have specific budgets for nanotechnology R&D. The Initiative has had strong, bipartisan support from the Executive and Legislative branches of Government since its creation in 2000. The agencies involved allocate expenditures from their core budgets, demonstrating nanotechnology’s importance to their mission. For more information, please visit www.nano.gov.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michele Nash-Hoff has been in and out of San Diego’s high-tech manufacturing industry since starting as an engineering secretary at age 18. She has served as president of the San Diego Electronics Network, the San Diego Chapter of the Electronics Representatives Association, and The High Technology Foundation, as well as several other professional and non-profit organizations. She is an active member of the Soroptimist International of San Diego club. She has a certificate in Total Quality Management and is a 1994 graduate of San Diego’s leadership program (LEAD San Diego.) She has also taken classes in lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. Nash-Hoff is also an author of books on U.S. and global manufacturing. Her most recent work, “Can U.S. Manufacturing Be Saved?” is available for purchase online at www.savingusmanufacturing.com/index.php or via amazon.com.
Nash-Hoff may be reached via e-mail at michele@SavingUSManufacturing.com.