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NEXT: Automation and Bioengineering Will Drive the Future of Manufacturing

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Automation and Bioengineering Will Drive the Future of Manufacturing
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The Columbus Idea Foundry provides a glimpse of the future of manufacturing.  The Idea Foundry is an expression of the “maker movement,” a renewed interest in things and objects, in making and manufacture, and in the skilled trades, which have been in decline over the past two generations.

Manufacturing at the Idea Foundry is smaller scale, based on batch processing, and on customizable, bespoke goods, not on the model of a giant factory with thousands of workers. In many ways, the Idea Foundry is a post-industrial enterprise that harkens back to pre-industrial patterns of manufacturing.

Where students now study computer science or software design, we could begin to see college students take the route toward manufacturing and making. That route, however, will not be the one that existed in the U.S. in the 1950s, where an 18-year old might graduate high school and the next day begin work in a factory. Today’s manufacturing is hi-tech: look at the 3-D printers and other technologies found at the Idea Foundry. To operate such tools requires advanced skills.

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education is already looking ahead to the workforce development needs for this advanced manufacturing. They announced their “Advanced Manufacturing Workforce Plan” in the Spring of 2015, which stated that “[We must] look beyond the requirements of today’s advanced manufacturing workforce to new and possibly higher-level competencies that will be required of the next generation workforce. While the current focus of workforce demand is centered on today’s definition of the production manufacturing worker, accelerating advances in materials, technologies and supply chain processes will require a workforce with substantially new and different knowledge, skills and abilities to build the products of the future.”

This means that four-year universities, not only technical and community colleges, must be geared up to train workers in advanced manufacturing skills.

As a measure of the high tech nature of manufacturing, much of what occurs in a factory is done by robots, machines and other forms of automation. Fewer workers monitor the technology that actually does the manufacturing.

Automation has always been the driving force in manufacturing after the Industrial Revolution: the historical trajectory has been the substitution of machines (capital) for human labor, and there is every reason to believe that long-term trend will continue unabated.

According to a McKinsey report, “some 59 percent of all manufacturing activities could be automated, given technical considerations…Within manufacturing, 90 percent of what welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers do, for example, has the technical potential for automation.”

Returning manufacturing jobs from China and Mexico was a central feature of the Trump campaign, and indeed the President has taken some executive actions to reverse this and to bring some of these manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  But many economists have noted that job loss in manufacturing has been less the result of overseas outsourcing as it has from automation.

It is possible that President Trump will realize this reality, and if he remains committed to restoring manufacturing jobs, he might begin to institute policies to regulate automation.  Might Trump insist that manufacturing be conducted by human laborers, else the companies using robots and other such technologies will be subject to taxes or other forms of retribution? Might consumers also begin to demand that the products they buy not only be “Made in the USA” but also “Made by Human Hands?” I think these are unlikely scenarios: it has been a truism of the Industrial Revolution that machines replace human labor, and I see no real challenge to that economic logic. But by the same token, some consumers have been demanding that foodstuffs not contain GMOs, and so it is possible that a similar sort of grass roots “rejection of automated-manufactured goods” could emerge.

We have long associated manufacturing with mechanical things: the production of automobiles, consumer goods, industrial materials.  There is every reason to believe that the next phase of the Industrial Revolution will involve not only mechanical things but also the manufacture of biological objects.

“Bioprinting” is still in the experimental stage, but the technology promises the ability to “print out” living tissue, even human organs, through a process similar to the 3-D printers. Rather than printing off plastic objects, bioprinting involves spraying layer upon layer of cells in a manner similar to an ink-jet printer, thereby additively manufacturing living organs.

The initial uses for such biological objects will be for organic matter that will be used for drug testing.  Rather than using lab animals, living human organs—manufactured organs—can be tested instead. Some experiments have already produced manufactured arteries, and very soon manufactured liver cells might be injected into patients who are suffering from liver disease.

Ultimately, the goal is to be able to “print” an entirely new liver for a patient in need of a replacement. To work in this form of biological manufacturing will require advanced degrees in biology, chemistry and biological engineering.

All of this is by way of saying that manufacturing jobs in the future might just as likely involve the production of living, squishy, pulsating biological objects.

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history, design and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is the host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday February 23 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Betel Rd.)  Our topic for the evening will be “Blockchain and the Future of the Internet.”

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