The National Association of Manufacturers estimated that the manufacturing sector accounted for 11.39% of the U.S. economy in 2020, even with global disruptions due to COVID-19. Still, the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in current manufacturing processes — and with them, opportunities for innovation. On-demand manufacturing, supply chain relocation, and remote support were a few trends that became commonplace seemingly overnight. If the manufacturing sector is to stay alive, these and many more must become the norm.
History of U.S. Manufacturing
Manufacturing has been at the core of American identity since the nation’s inception, as evidenced by advancements like bulk material handling in the 1780s and the design of interchangeable parts at the turn of the 19th century. Among all the contributions the United States has made to manufacturing, some of the most landmark innovations include:
- The first automobile (1908)
- The first assembly line (1913)
- The first CAD software (1953)
- The first integrated circuit (1958)
From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and World War II to automation and Six Sigma practices, the manufacturing industry has undergone multiple transformations over the years — and the onset of the pandemic has provided the urgency to stimulate another.
How COVID-19 Has Forced Manufacturing To Change
It is no secret that every industry has had to adapt quickly in response to COVID-19. Some changes were already looming on the horizon, but thanks to the pandemic, they were implemented at a much faster pace than expected. That was certainly true for the manufacturing sector, as the following previously hypothetical transitions became the standard.
Digital Transformation and a Remote Workforce
Social-distancing policies forced many companies to find new ways to keep their workers productive, and for many, digital transformation was the answer. For example, by capitalizing on virtual meeting spaces like Teams or Zoom, businesses leveraged digital transformation technologies to enable their employees to work remotely.
While many people assumed that remote work would eventually take hold across most industries, it seemed farther down the road for the manufacturing sector because of its inherent physical nature. Now that remote work has been implemented out of necessity, some manufacturers may establish it as the norm even after the pandemic is over.
As employees were forced to work from home, facility workspaces also found a virtual space. As we showed in our 2021 State of Manufacturing Report, many manufacturers found that their resources could be stewarded more efficiently by leveraging on-demand manufacturing. Rather than finding a supplier, submitting a design, receiving feedback on its manufacturability, and obtaining a quote through the back-and-forth of phone calls and emails, manufacturers have looked to digital manufacturing platforms to streamline the process, making only what they need when they need it. The process entails:
- Design upload. By uploading a 2D or 3D design and other part information (material, quantity, threading, etc.), manufacturers can immediately receive input on the feasibility of fabrication, as well as the cost and build time, from prospective suppliers.
- Part manufacture. Upon uploading their design, companies may select their means of production, using either additive or subtractive methods. Whether it is gear hobbing, electrical discharge machining, CNC milling, or CNC turning, businesses may designate their CNC machining online. Simpler processes like injection and cast molding may also be used.
- Ongoing updates. For on-demand manufacturing to work, customers must be kept in the loop about the status of their orders. Person-to-person communication is available when needed, but it often takes longer, so order updates can be sent through the digital platform immediately upon request.
On-demand manufacturing offers the advantages of immediate design feedback, method versatility, and faster communication, enabling manufacturers to stay nimble and resilient at a time when the pandemic has pushed them to their limits.
Aside from the pandemic, changes in global policies and emerging markets have shifted the supply chain landscape for manufacturers. As an example, 2018 tariffs imposed on China by then-President Trump forced many manufacturers to rethink the value of producing their goods abroad. The resulting national tension created supply chain instability, causing many companies to adopt a “China, plus one” model — sourcing supplies from countries on which they once completely depended while also opening new lines of business with other suppliers in case of disruptions.
Some manufacturers have found that the best way to stabilize their supply chain is by moving back home completely. “In-shoring” and “near-shoring” are both ways of shortening a product’s journey to the final user, eliminating waste and making supply chains more reliable in the process.
Manufacturers will undoubtedly take many lessons away from having lived through a pandemic. Going forward, digital transformation and on-demand manufacturing will be increasingly used to speed up the pace of innovation, and supply chain diversification and relocation will become oft-used methods of securing supply chains and reducing company waste. Other innovations like 5G and the implementation of the Internet of Things will continue to revolutionize the industry, but recent practices will go a long way in helping the manufacturing industry survive.