WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Small and midsize manufacturers continue to face issues around increased competition, adopting more automation/robotics to their processes, and how to deal with a changing workforce. More than 13,000 attendees from across New England gathered over three days this week at the Eastern States Exposition grounds to discuss these and other issues at EASTEC, a manufacturing technology event sponsored by SME and the Association for Manufacturing Technology.
Spread out across four buildings at the Exposition grounds (home of the Big E, which serves as the “state fair” for the six New England states), EASTEC provided keynote sessions, workshops, and more than 720 companies showing off the latest tools, machines, technologies and support software. EASTEC is part of a manufacturing series of events that also includes HOUSTEX, SOUTHTEC, and WESTEC in other regions of the U.S.
Here are some takeaway messages and trends that I discovered during a day of walking around at the event and attending some sessions:
Robotics a growing part of the manufacturing ecosystem
While this wasn’t a specific show to robotics, there were a few companies on the show floor, including Fanuc and Universal Robots, that showed robots on the floor. A few other companies also included smaller industrial robots at their booths as part of their system integration offerings, as well as companies adding autonomy to existing products, such as industrial floor cleaners.
Companies in the “middle market” of manufacturing are also investing more in the technology. In a survey sponsored by insurance company Chubb, manufacturers were asked what technologies they were investing in over the past year, and robotics was one of the top areas:
- 19% – robotics and advanced automation
- 19% – new materials and composites
- 18% – advanced process control
- 18% – cybersecurity
- 13% – additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping
- 10% – embedded sensor technology
When asked about the impact of technological advances, most of those surveyed cited higher productivity (76%), followed by more customization (55%), a greater need for capital (50%), higher security risks (46%), and the need for larger factories (32%). Interestingly, respondents were split on whether technology would create a larger workforce (28%) or a smaller one (27%). This seems to indicate that many manufacturers are unsure whether technology will help a company grow, or if they need it to reduce a workforce.
When they asked “fast-growing” manufacturers, those who had 10% revenue growth or higher in the past year, which technological advance would be important over the next five years, robotics and advanced automation was among the top answers (64%), compared with only 44% from respondents with the same revenue or decreased revenue growth. This indicates that fast-growing manufacturers were more likely to see the importance of advanced automation and robotics.
Dealing with a changing workforce
At many points during the event, speakers pointed out the challenges of having to deal with millions of manufacturing workers that are expected to retire in the next decade. From taking their know-how and digitizing that information to provide for new workers, to strategies on how to deal with a millennial and digital-native workforce, it was clear that a changing workforce was top of mind for many at the show.
“Manufacturers are having a hard time attracting and retaining the future workforce, while also capturing and passing down the knowledge from their most senior employees,” said Kim Farrugia, a senior event manager at SME. A keynote panel on the third day of the show explored how companies found success in implementing programs such as mentoring and other ideas to develop a more sustainable workforce.
In the Chubb survey/report, the company reported that “talent management issues stem from and compound every other challenge manufacturers face.” In their survey, midsize manufacturers were asked about their challenges around the workforce:
- 64% – finding workers with the technical skills needed
- 46% – providing health coverage for workers
- 40% – implementing automation in the manufacturing process
- 39% – finding workers with fundamental vocational skills
- 37% – dealing with an aging workforce
Brief slowdown, followed by large growth
Despite these challenges, there was a general feeling of optimism around the overall importance of manufacturing as part of the U.S. economy. Economist Alan Beaulieu, president and principal of ITR Economics, said that the U.S. would remain the world’s largest economy for the foreseeable future.
However, he did point out that all of his leading indicators pointed to a slowdown for the rest of 2019, with small negative growth in 2020. After that, however, he said the 2020s would be a good decade for manufacturing overall, especially those that make products aimed at an aging population (Baby Boomers, especially). But instead of worrying about the slowdown in the short term, Beaulieu told attendees that they should get a jump on their competitors this year to fix any bottlenecks they had before the slowdown occurred. “It’s an easy win for those who are aggressive,” he said.
A slowing of growth was also cited by the AMT, one of the producers of EASTEC, in its Manufacturing Technology Orders Report for March 2019. The group said manufacturing technology orders were valued at $413.7 million in March 2019, a 26% increase over February, but a 20% decline over March 2018’s orders. For the first three months of 2019, there was a 9.5% decline over the same period in 2018.
“The 2019 market for manufacturing technology will contract from 2018 but will still likely be one of the best years since the Great Recession,” said Pat McGibbon, chief knowledge officer at AMT.
3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing is hot
Many of the sessions during the event included discussions around metal 3D printing, additive manufacturing, and how smaller manufacturers can take advantage of the technology. A large portion of the show floor in the different buildings included companies involved in the process of 3D printing.