Manufacturing has an image problem. “We need to get the word out that manufacturing jobs aren’t dirty jobs,” said Natalie Schilling, vice president of human resources and global primary products at Alcoa, the aluminum giant. “That you put on a clean white shirt when you go to work and come back with a dirty shirt and dirty fingernails.”
“We are working in a new environment. Advanced manufacturing is like laparoscopic surgery on machine parts,” she said.
Schilling was speaking yesterday at Manufacturing’s Next Chapter, a one-day summit organized by The Atlantic in partnership with GE in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together executives, innovators, journalists and politicians, who talked about the impact of the rapidly evolving manufacturing technology on American industry and economy. They also sketched out policy ideas to promote advanced manufacturing and economic growth in the U.S. “We are at an amazing point in history,” said Neil Gershenfeld, director of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. Gershenfeld said that advanced manufacturing technologies like 3-D printing may still seem small, “but they have been doubling exponentially” every year. “This doubling will make them explode.”
Jeff Immelt: “Additive manufacturing allows you to make the product from the core up, you don’t have as much waste, the tooling is cheaper, and the cycle time is faster. That’s the Holy Grail.” Photo Credit: Tony Powell
The speakers, which included technology gurus like Gershenfeld as well as Sen. John McCain, agreed that American manufacturing is going through a renaissance fueled by advanced technologies like 3-D printing, big data that animates the Industrial Internet, and shale gas. But they also said the country urgently needs skilled workers to fill high-tech manufacturing jobs, less regulation, and a roadmap on taxes.
Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO, said that his company is already using 3-D printing to produce jet engine parts. “Additive manufacturing allows you to make the product from the core up, you don’t have as much waste, the tooling is cheaper, and the cycle time is faster. That’s the Holy Grail,” he said. “You can make unique shapes with high-tech materials in a good period of time. This is worth my time, attention, money and effort.”
Immelt’s customers benefit from advanced manufacturing, too. “The shape of a turbine blade, where the holes go and what the coating is, that may make the difference of one or two percent in fuel burn and the way the jet engine works,” Immelt said. “That’s billions of dollars for our customers.”
Immelt also said that shale gas was “one of the two or three biggest things” that he has seen in his career. “It’s a game changer,” he said. “Every citizen in the U.S. should be very interested how we develop these resources. It could lead to more prosperity and more jobs.”
There were other speakers channeling optimism. “Now is a more fun and uplifting moment for American manufacturing,” said Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. “People are starting to recognize the strength of American manufacturing. It’s critical to economic growth, vitality and jobs.” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, pointed out that “U.S. manufacturing is at the center of American innovation. It’s embedded in our workers and products.” Holtz-Eakin said “innovation and technologies that are central to manufacturing are crucial to our future.”
But those innovations and technologies require skilled workers. Experts estimate that there are currently 600,000 unfilled high-tech jobs in the U.S. “Manufacturing pumps $1.8 trillion in added value into the U.S. economy,” said David Arkless, president for global corporate and government affairs at ManpowerGroup. “That number would grow to $2.2 trillion if we filled those 600,000 jobs. This should drive American nuts,” said Arkless, who is a Swiss national.
It does. Immelt said that education and training were at the top of his list to grow manufacturing in the U.S. Immelt, who spent 30 years at GE, said manufacturing was very different now than when he started. “When you do additive manufacturing, you have to know computer skills, as well as artisan skills like welding,” he said.
That’s why GE and partners including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alcoa, and the Manufacturing Institute launched the Get Skills to Work coalition. The program will help 15,000 veterans apply their military experience and skills to high-tech manufacturing jobs. The program has also partnered with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University to develop a toolkit of best practices for engaging veterans and developing talent.
Susan Lund, director of research at McKinsey Global Institute pointed out that the skills gap starts at the school level. “There is a problem with information,” she said. “Students don’t know where to get those skills. We need a national database that connects jobs seekers with the opportunities and [tells them] how to get those jobs.”
Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, agreed. “Our secret sauce in manufacturing is the human element,” she said. “We suffer from a skills gap. It’s not a quality issue, it’s a match issue. We must close the skills gap and education is the key.”
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