With advanced automation technologies and robotics, labor costs can be made more tolerable to manufacturers, reducing their incentive to send manufacturing work overseas. Manufacturers can find significant cost savings by investing technology. Some machines can increase productivity by as much as 70% via automation, while only costing as much as a single employee’s salary for one year.

In addition, with cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT), digital sensors and chips can be programmed to feed information about a product’s performance to the manufacturer in real time. Placing sensors inside machines will alert them to processing errors, when parts are wearing out, ways to cut costs, and techniques to improve overall efficiency and design.

New technologies increase productivity to the extent that labor costs will not be as significant as the ability to use advanced tools effectively. U.S. manufacturing wages are still high by global standards, but investing in education and improving skills will add a new dimension to domestic manufacturers’ advantages: innovation.

To be innovative, U.S. manufacturers must have the intellectual resources available from technicians, engineers, and designers in their employment, improving and optimizing their operations and implementing new ideas for competing with manufacturers around the world. Transforming the U.S. into an “innovator economy” will be the future goal for American manufacturing. To achieve that, they must overcome the gap between the skills their employees have now – and the skills they need now, or will need soon.

Innovation is the future — What causes the skills gap? Experienced industrial workers are beginning to retire and some college-bound youth are not choosing to pursue careers in manufacturing. Some employers have stated that many of the students who present themselves as candidates for open positions come out of school with little hands-on experience, only theory. This lack of real-world aptitude can cause them to approach problems without insight, or to design products that aren’t manufacturable, which leads to delays, scrap, and products failing in the field.

By standardizing training and design practices, the members of your team will become more productive. Properly trained workers are free to think creatively and to innovate, rather than searching the web for an answer or vainly seeking the advice of a help desk or call center.  

Manufacturing companies today have access to resources that once were available only to large organizations and government agencies. Makerspaces, cloud / subscription-based software tools, and crowdfunding have given small businesses and startups the opportunity to innovate and disrupt various industries, but the challenge is bringing the right talent together, and putting an emphasis on ongoing learning and continuous improvement.

This is not a recent development; it is a rapidly maturing factor in manufacturing. The manufacturing industry continues to evolve — and it’s growing at the same time. Over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are expected to be available. Ongoing learning, training, and professional development will be necessary for manufactures to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and processes. U.S. manufacturing is changing, and U.S. manufacturers must understand the changes in order to be prepared for the opportunities. 

Tony Glockler is the co-founder and CEO of SolidProfessor, an online learning company specializing in software applications used in engineering and design, and helping engineers and designers become more effective. Contact him at LinkedIn.com/in/tony-glockler