As the United States continues to become more and more competitive in the international manufacturing market, other countries are looking for ways to stay in the game. While different countries are taking many different approaches in order to do just that, one of the most interesting trends we’ve seen recently is the ‘smart factory,’ an idea being pioneered in Germany.
Taking off in what The Wall Street Journal calls a “sleepy industrial town,” a new factory from Siemens AG is outfitted with loads of technology that make it one of the most connected factories ever. Born out of the Internet of Things–the growing number of devices, from washing machines to smartphones, that are connected to the internet–this so-called ‘smart factory’ uses a connection to the internet to maximize efficiency and change the way humans interact with factory machinery.
WSJ notes that the factory is today on about 75% autopilot; the factory’s 1,150 employees spend most of their time operating computers and monitoring the production process rather than interacting directly with machinery. Even so, the ‘smart manufacturing’ movement is still “in the pilot phase,” but what Germany’s doing could be a sign of the future.
In the United States, factories are undergoing similar transformations. All across the country, advanced manufacturing is changing the roles of humans in factories. At the BMW plant in North Carolina, for example, BMW is testing out new robots that are said to work safely beside humans–a far cry from brutal machinery of days past. And even in factories where there’s less automation, many manufacturing employees are moving out of strictly labor-based roles and into roles where technology and computing skills are required. (That’s a large part of the reason we see such a serious skills gap today.)
Germany and the United States are so different in many ways that it’s hard to say whether smart factories will take off in the United States, but at the very least, we think it’s worth considering the impact that smart factories could have if they become more widespread. No, the robots won’t take over. Instead, expect to see required skills continue to change. There’s a reason we continually say that STEM skills are essential–they’re becoming more and more necessary in factories not only in the U.S., but also all around the world.
It may be too early to tell whether smart factories will rise in popularity in the United States, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s never too early to start preparing yourself for the skills that will be needed in factories of the future. Those who have strong technology skills and an understanding of advanced manufacturing will excel, while those who stick to old methods and teachings of manufacturing will likely fall behind. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that we recommend placing yourself in the former category.
Photo credit: Siemens via The Wall Street Journal