2020 has certainly been an … interesting year in U.S. manufacturing.
Though the first quarter of the year was poised for a decent start, that simply didn’t happen. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a giant wrench in the works on a global scale.
Internationally, manufacturing grinded to a near halt, with trade following suit. While recovery from the first few months of 2020 has happened, the pandemic is still very much with us.
American metal fabrication was not immune to cornoavirus’s impacts. During the first half of 2020, domestic metal fabrication fell 2.7% in the first quarter, followed by a decline of 11.2% in the second.
In the midst of these troubling times, manufacturers were forced to rethink their day-to-day and implement immediate changes. These changes are likely to stick around.
What else do we see happening down the line?
5 Domestic Metal Manufacturing Trends to Watch
In gearing up for 2021, here are five current manufacturing trends you should be aware of:
- 3D Printing
Adopting new processes to meet market demand is nothing new. However, more executives are looking to ”agile” methodology for their operations.
Agility in manufacturing isn’t about moving from one task to another quickly. Rather, it’s about anticipating needs or changes and seamlessly shifting gears. It’s also about prioritizing tasks for efficiency -- something all manufacturers can benefit from.
The coronavirus pandemic was a proving ground of sorts for agility in manufacturing. With supply chains hampered and some domestic facilities outright shut down during quarantine, makers of metal-based products were forced to adapt to their new circumstances quickly. Those that successfully navigated the initial months of the pandemic attributed agility to maintaining business as close to normal as possible.
Given how quickly life changed in 2020, it’s no surprise that decision makers in manufacturing want their operations to be proactive, rather than reactive.
From AI monitoring and predictive maintenance to robots completing tasks, automation will become more of a new normal in manufacturing. That doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing humanless factories anytime soon.
The use of automated technology and machine learning in manufacturing allows for more focus on actual product innovation. Increases in automation in the metal manufacturing industry could improve overall growth and efficiency.
Better products = more customers = more profit.
From a practical standpoint, when something such as a pandemic hits, robots don’t get sick. That means manufacturing automation elements of a production line or supply chain remain up and running, while executives can align resources (workers) to safely meet demands.
Again, robots aren’t taking over; they’re just likely to become a more common sight on shop floors.
3. Bridging the Digital Divide
Those in the manufacturing world aren’t always first in line for new digital products and procedures. In fact, manufacturing typically lags behind other industries in embracing digitization -- be it cloud computing, new software, or advanced data analytics.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, many domestic manufacturers were forced to rely on technology and those who knew it best. Going forward, there’s likely to be more priority placed on hiring workers who are digital natives and upskilling the existing workforce.
The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2022, 54% of employees
are going to need significant training to meet the technological demands of the global economy -- and that was before COVID-19. While that number is high, there’s good news: 77% of workers say they’re willing to learn new skills now or completely retrain to improve their future employability.
Now, more than ever, bringing operations back to U.S. shores is looking very attractive to those with international supply chains for both raw metals and finished components. Though cheap overseas labor seemed like a good investment, the near shutdown of global manufacturing and trade revealed just how fragile international supply chains are.
With an American-based supply chain, world events don’t impact your production as much. You’re able to exert more control over processes and have a better grasp of what’s happening in the shops of your third-party partners. You can also rest assured that finished products are made to some of the highest standards in the world.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, American manufacturers were seeing the downsides of offshoring. Dive into the many reasons why:
Last year, 3D printing in manufacturing was expected to gain ground. It did. And it’s poised to do it again next year.
3D is a rapid prototyping process that is extremely cost-effective for manufacturers. It allows them to test and troubleshoot their products quickly and efficiently. Not only that, manufacturers can also produce items on demand with 3D printing instead of waiting for them to be made in the warehouse.
3D printing is now a huge part of additive manufacturing, which makes it overall more faster and capable. You can even mix different metals and plastics in a single job.
The capabilities of 3D printing will only continue to expand in years to come. But, it's definitely something to keep an eye on in 2021.
Manufacturing Trends: Looking Beyond 2020
As cliche as it’s become, U.S. manufacturing is indeed operating in uncertain times.
But out of uncertainty comes innovation and improvement. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.
As metal manufacturing slowly gets back to normal, “business as usual” across the U.S. manufacturing sector is certainly going to be much different.
(Editor's note: This article was originally published July 2018 and has been recently updated.)