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posted: 10/27/2016 1:00 AM

A look at manufacturing’s digital revolution

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By The Association for Manufacturing Technology

Wearables, VR headsets and connected devices with a slick digital interface aren't just found at your local electronics retailer. All of this is coming to a factory floor near you.

Manufacturing's digital revolution has transformed the industry in profound ways. Much of it has focused on data and analytics, as data on both production and the products themselves is important for giving manufacturers a competitive edge. But that same revolution also is transforming how new workers are trained, how products are designed, and how employees perform day-to-day operations in a factory.

At a time when the industry is in desperate need of skilled workers, these transformations are crucial to attracting new talent (aka, students determining a future career path). It is predicted that there could be a shortfall of two million skilled workers in manufacturing by 2020, with potential to severely impact the industry's productivity and ability to innovate. That means attracting young people is crucial.

A survey from The Manufacturing Institute found that students are most commonly influenced by their own experiences and interests when choosing a career path (64 percent saying it is their greatest influence), meaning that it's key to give those students industry exposure along with an exciting, approachable experience. A few technologies could improve manufacturing's appeal to students:

Virtual reality/augmented reality: VR and AR are finding a number of applications within manufacturing. A big one is for worker training, where trainees are given a chance to learn skills like CNC machining, welding, or machine installation/maintenance within a virtual experience. Additionally, service technicians can connect to other support staff virtually to diagnose or repair a problem, allowing the remote technician a near in-person experience with the parts and equipment.

But VR and AR are making their biggest inroads in the realm of product design. The real-life, 3-D experience allowed by VR and AR makes conceiving a design more tangible and therefore gives a better understanding of how it would perform in the real world. It also adds a level of "empathy" for product users and how they would experience it.

Improved user experience: Let's face it -- high-tech manufacturing equipment can seem intimidating. To an outsider, it can look like something that might be impossible to grasp. A complicated user experience doesn't help matters. For machine controls and shop floor software like as CAD-CAM, there is now a movement toward developing a user experience that is more intuitive and more closely aligned with familiar technologies like video games, mobile devices, and common consumer software. By bringing down the intimidation factor, the technology becomes more appealing to a wider group.

Digital design and 3-D printing: 3-D printing and additive manufacturing have generated plenty of attention, particularly within the Maker Movement. It's also brought renewed attention to manufacturing. Artists and designers have been keen to utilize the technology because of the design freedom it allows. The growing presence of desktop 3-D printers in the classroom is giving students the experience of creating a design and then seeing it come to life. While additive manufacturing is still somewhat limited in its capabilities for industrial applications compared to traditional machining, it continues to make inroads on the shop floor and will continue to see wider adoption throughout the industry.

Manufacturing still has plenty of work ahead to overcome misperceptions and improve its image. Getting parents and teachers on board is nearly as important as reaching the students themselves. Technology can be a critical point of entry for building awareness about the industry's exciting, high-skilled careers and a real driver of manufacturing's next-generation advanced talent.

• Penelope Brown is marketing & communications director at the Association for Manufacturing Technology. PBrown@amtonline.org.