One of the most clairvoyant articles I have gleaned in the past month was an interview in Wired magazine with a man named Vaclav Smil. Bill Gates has said of Smil: “There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.” High praise indeed.
Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and is a specialist, a polymath more accurately, on the world’s biggest challenges including the future of energy, food production and manufacturing. Having written three dozen data-heavy books, he has expertise in many areas and a remarkable way of framing basic facts.
In one of those books, Made in the USA, Smil powerfully rebuts the notion that manufacturing is a relic of predigital history and that the loss of American manufacturing is a desirable evolutionary step toward a pure service economy. Smil argues that no advanced economy can prosper without a strong, innovative manufacturing sector and the jobs it creates.
According to Smil, the history of manufacturing in America is a story of nation-building. Manufacturing became a fundamental force behind America’s economic, strategic and social dominance.
Smil believes that innovation is tied to the process of making things. He fears for the future of the U.S. given the demise of American manufacturing in recent years, believing it will doom the country intellectually and creatively: “In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up on manufacturing, you end up with the haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole lower middle class sinks.”
Restoring manufacturing, Smil argues, would mean training Americans again to build things. He points out that only two countries, Germany and Switzerland, have done this well, principally because they have apprenticeship programs and younger trainees learn from the more senior. Smil cites the production of BMWs as an example; we can illustrate with Siemens here in Charlotte and BMWs in Greer, S.C.
While manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have suffered massive casualties over the last two decades, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the buzzwords “additive manufacturing,” also known as “3D manufacturing” bandied about as the next big thing.
Using materials like titanium, stainless steel, and everyday plastic to make everything from cars to meat (yes, food) to guns (yes, guns), a 3D printing machine can manufacture the most intricate of designs and personalize product design in unprecedented ways. Already, successful implementation includes custom-made medical implants, prosthetics, and even organs.
The technology, which involves layering three-dimensional materials on top of one another and adhering them together, has been around for more than three decades. Chuck Hull was one of the first developers of the technology used and also the file format for translating computer-aided design software into 3D-printing-friendly modules. Hull founded and is presently CTO of 3D Systems, headquartered in Rock Hill. We are privileged this month to profile Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, who describes how they have become an industry leader.
Additive manufacturing is presenting new opportunities for innovative companies, much as the digital music revolution empowered startup technology even as legacy firms suffered. Fortunately, the rise of additive manufacturing will also increase the demand for more skilled and better trained workers than ever before.
Combined with the increase in advanced manufacturing (the use of innovative technology to improve products or processes), it is predicted that the demand for highly capable labor force will reach an all-time high.
We are already beginning to see new manufacturing opportunities developing in and returning to the U.S. American workers are perceived to have a strong work ethic, and there is a sensitivity to the training programs necessary to equip the workforce.
Here in the Carolinas, we are fortunate to have Tony Zeiss and Central Piedmont Community College, along with many other technical schools and colleges, that are stepping up and establishing training programs and developing apprenticeships.
CNN has a great videoclip on CPCC Apprenticeship 2000 program, an initiative that equips CPCC students with today’s manufacturing skills, helps them graduate with no debt, and guarantees them a job after graduation. Every student and parent should see this video before they make up their minds about their future education and training.
3D or additive manufacturing is predicted to bring advanced manufacturing “hyperlocal,” with a concordant “democratization” of technology, the process by which access to technology rapidly continues to become more accessible to more people.
These are exciting times. We are living in an age of innovation and customization that seems magical, with machines as marvelous as the extraordinary creatures in any Harry Potter movie. We are serving up a future for the next generations that invite creativity and big ideas.
We must adjust our mindsets and prepare our students for a future in manufacturing as a means of support and advancement. And we need to be attentive to and explore developing opportunities in the ever-changing world of technology.
By recognizing and embracing the processes and possibilities brought about by advanced manufacturing and additive manufacturing processes, we can rebuild the middle class and increase our productivity to the benefit of our communities and our nation. In the process, we will open doors to international trade and commerce and business growth that will be the next great economic wave.