wind-turbinesMay is World Trade Month, the month designated to acknowledge the importance of trade, manufacturing, and investment.

This year, World Trade Month comes at a particularly poignant time in advanced manufacturing, as vice president of the National Advanced Manufacturers Association Linda Dempsey explains. In the current economic climate, “Trade and manufacturing continues to be bandied about in interviews with presidential candidates, achieving a level of national attention that it deserves given the importance of trade to manufacturing. Unfortunately, most of the conversations are removed from the reality of manufacturing today.”

In many ways, challenges facing U.S. manufacturing right now are frankly nothing new. Look at this New Directions in Manufacturing Report from 2004, and it seems as if it could have been written yesterday. When looking at how to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing capacity, the report asks:

  • How can we maintain the pace of innovation, to create new jobs for those displaced by changes in the manufacturing enterprise?
  • How can we ensure that small and medium-sized manufacturers remain strong and competitive?
  • How can we maintain a sufficient talent pool and adequately skilled manufacturing workers?

Since 2004, though, the technological advancements have been extraordinary, and those seem to be the major developments in what challenges are top-of-mind for manufacturers today. However, there are several new questions that need to be asked in 2016 in order for the United States to remain a globally competitive advanced manufacturer:

  • How will advanced technology affect what can and can’t be produced in the United States? Harvard Business professor Willy C. Shih notes, “. . . as cars get more complex and incorporate more electronics content, a greater percentage of the parts will come from outside the walls of the traditional assemblers like General Motors. Automatic lane-change or breaking systems, electric power steering, complex engine controllers—all require microcontrollers and power semi-conductors. It is simply neither possible nor practical to be the best at building everything oneself.”
  • How does sustainable technology heighten workforce challenges? Iowa is a crucial test case for this right now, as they attempt to transition more power than ever before to wind energy. As the clean energy sector grows, which is certainly beneficial for the environment, the vice president of the Iowa Wind Energy Association says that “. . . three-quarters of our surveyed employers have experienced hiring difficulty during the past 12 months . . . top challenges include lack of experience, training, and technical skills, as well as competition for a small applicant pool.” As sustainability grows, education must grow to match it.
  • Will advanced manufacturers adopt a connected industrial workforce? From collaborative robots to IT security upgrades to IoT systems, a survey last week found that while advanced manufacturers generally recognize the benefits of linking their workforce to connected industrial equipment, they rarely have the confidence needed to implement those systems: 85% of participants described themselves as laggards, rather than leaders, in digital manufacturing trends.

World Trade Month is a great opportunity to reintroduce issues for all advanced manufacturers thinking about how to remain competitive in the global landscape. Particularly for small businesses, who make up 98% of our country’s exporters, National Small Business Week falls from May 4-8, playing double duty when it comes to raising awareness. If you have questions, comments, or would like to learn more about how to raise awareness during World Trade Month, leave a comment in the section below, anytime!

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