We Talked to 1,100 Manufacturers about the State of the Sector. Here’s What They Had to Say.

Event Recap

Credit: FABTECH Expo

According to a new report from the Institute for Supply Management, 2017 was the strongest year for US factories since 2004. The positive numbers reflect a range of promising factors: a trend toward domestic reshoring, steady U.S. household spending, strong global economic demand, and the rise of new digitized manufacturing technologies.

Still, there are serious challenges facing U.S. manufacturing. From future economic uncertainties and workforce issues to technological needs and worries about automation, there are looming questions for the future of the sector.

To gain clarity on the problems and prospects facing America’s factories, MForesight decided to go to the source. Our team interviewed nearly 1,100 attendees at FABTECH, a metal forming, fabricating, welding, and finishing show that regularly ranks as one of the world’s largest manufacturing trade events. We asked manufacturing professionals for their views on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing their industries in the coming years.

While most attendees were understandably focused on short-term priorities and implementing current technologies, their answers illuminate important trends to watch. From CEOs to shop foremen to skilled tradespeople, here are the key challenges, opportunities, ideas, and trends that rose to the top:

1) Future robotics: autonomous, capable, and contextually aware

Many respondents at FABTECH emphasized the inherent potential in new automated tools. Respondents would like to see robots that require less programming, take only limited space on the shop floor, and adapt readily to the changing requirements of modern manufacturing. For example, crucial long-term needs that could be addressed with advanced future technologies include (1) versatile robotics that could deal with temporary workforce shortages by picking up a task where a human worker left off; (2) robots that could detect process errors that are increasingly harder to detect and immediately correct them; or (3) new automated processes with advanced sensing capacities to autonomously handle increasingly complex materials and parts.

2) Welding and metal joining: the next generation

Many respondents emphasized the importance of developing welding technologies that can join diverse types of metals — not just steel. There were calls for improvement of welding technology through automation, on-the-fly automated monitoring of weld quality, better control of heat affected zones, methods to improve the contours and surface finish of welds, capacitive welding with shorter rise time, hybrid laser/arc welding, and faster, more affordable laser welding technologies. There were also calls for developments in metal joining alternatives to welding, such as stir welding, explosive joining, and clinching. Multi-material joining for increasingly dissimilar materials was also emphasized as a key challenge.

3) Faster and smarter quality control systems

Quality control is a perennial issue for manufacturers. Respondents emphasized the importance of developing new non-destructive evaluation methods for feedstock materials and manufactured parts. This need is especially important in the context of emerging trends towards short manufacturing runs (e.g., additive manufacturing, personalized products), feedstock materials of increasing sophistication and composition (e.g., high entropy alloys), and the manufacture of high value-added products (e.g., aerospace, medical devices). Manufacturers emphasized the need to identify flaws of ever smaller dimensions and for increasingly complex parts through novel radiographic and electromagnetic techniques. Other respondents emphasized their desire for fast, inexpensive ways to check part tolerances through advancements in image processing.

4) High-power lasers

High-powered lasers present the opportunity for affordable, high-speed, flexible, high-quality cutting, with additional applications in surface modification, joining, and additive manufacturing. Respondents emphasized the importance of lasers to the future of manufacturing, but faced challenges in integration with robotics, the need for better sensors, and better thermal management of both the laser source and the manufactured part. High-power sheet lasers and the integration of laser cutting with water jets were both highlighted for the potential to advance manufacturing.

5) Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM) techniques are coming of age. Among respondents, there was a nearly universal view that these technologies present extraordinary opportunities for the future of manufacturing. Respondents focused heavily on how additive manufacturing can be adopted as part of a manufacturing process in tandem with other technologies, such as injection molding and machining. Respondents heavily emphasized the promise of metal additive manufacturing. Still, respondents had practical concerns about adopting AM, including issues regarding qualification of material, quality control of the final part, workforce availability, capital costs, production speed, and surface finish. Other key AM-related opportunities include: multi-material systems, additive/subtractive hybrid machines, and new types of printable materials.

6) Agile manufacturing machinery

Respondents at FABTECH observed that the cycle time from design to manufacturing and assembly is limited by tooling and equipment timelines. Many manufacturers are looking to enhance their capacity to quickly scale-up prototypes and rapidly respond to dynamic markets. Many want to integrate multiple processes into hybrid manufacturing systems (for example, merging advanced imaging, machine learning, and welding to improve weld quality, or combining additive manufacturing of molds with injection molding machines for rapid, low-cost part changes). Respondents emphasized that design-to-assembly cycle times can be shortened through computer tools and manufacturing operations that are more flexible, scalable, and modular. They also called for more manufacturing equipment that is interoperable, connected, adaptable to “one off jobs”, and easy to reconfigure (in terms of software as well as fixturing and hardware).

7) Machine tools: keeping up with ever-stronger alloys

As metals become stronger and harder they also become more and more expensive and difficult to manipulate. Some respondents emphasized the emerging challenge of machining and forming these new materials. Topics include reducing tool wear, processes to prevent brittle fracture, and novel additive processes.

8) Software: integral manufacturing suites

Many manufacturers are envisioning a new generation of software-enabled technologies. This includes expanding the applicability and availability of platforms that interconnect a variety of production machines, evaluate worker and machine performance in real time, manage supply chains and distributed manufacturing, apply predictive analytics, and model manufacturing processes and integrate these processes with prototype design and part modeling, among other capacities. Many respondents emphasized the importance of streamlined design processes and supporting the design and manufacture of custom and low-volume products.

9) Trustworthy material information

Trust is the most crucial ingredient in any supply chain. Many FABTECH respondents emphasized the importance of systems that can enhance transparency and ensure greater trust regarding material composition, quality, and performance, ensuring that the corresponding parts and components can perform as needed. Needs and opportunities include: unbiased material property databases, faster material certification timelines, and non-destructive evaluation methods.

10) Modeling materials and parts

In metal forming, machining, forging, and other manufacturing processes, simulations can bring a variety of benefits — including shortening manufacturing cycles. FABTECH respondents emphasized the need for new modeling methods, especially for advanced processes and materials, such as multi-phase steel microstructures.

11) Workforce needs

While respondents emphasized a diverse range of technological needs and opportunities, there’s consensus that the most important aspect of manufacturing will remain the same: People. Respondents are concerned about an aging workforce, the decline of hands-on machining and welding programs in high schools, and diminishing public knowledge and interest in manufacturing, especially in younger generations. In terms of specific skills, pressing areas in need of training include machining, welding, and advanced manufacturing — particularly robotic automation, CAD, and additive manufacturing techniques. Respondents also suggest reinvigorating high school and trade programs on manufacturing with hands-on experience in machining and welding, educating high school counselors and parents to understand manufacturing job opportunities, and emphasizing lifelong training and education programs to help workers adopt to a changing tech landscape.

For all the challenges facing U.S .manufacturing, there are still extraordinary opportunities. As our conversations with manufacturers at FABTECH illustrate, there’s increasing clarity on the needs and prospects for manufacturing technologies.