The U.S. has historically responded to national and global crises by ramping innovation and manufacturing capabilities to solve critical societal problems. The COVID-19 crisis has tested that approach. While responses across all sectors have made meaningful impacts, the pandemic also revealed vulnerabilities in manufacturing and supply chains. The shortcomings in the supply chains for pharmaceutical therapeutics and diagnostics, medical devices, and personal protective equipment have been widely reported. Large portions of the population experienced unprecedented shortages of paper products, disinfectants, and, in some cases, certain foods.
The pandemic has highlighted the tradeoff that industries have made between systematic cost reductions and manufacturing and supply chain resilience. Supply chains have been optimized to reduce costs, which has driven them to a point of extreme geographic diversity, severely limiting our control of production. Many raw materials, intermediates, and finished products are manufactured in regions where U.S. interests are often not well served. The regional divide also weakens and slows the signal between consumers’ demand requirements and producers’ supply response. Limited information and lack of control leaves the U.S. population and economy strategically vulnerable, particularly in times of crisis.
As we recover and learn from the current pandemic, the U.S. must recognize the potential for another crisis and focus on manufacturing competitiveness, supply chain security, and workforce development. The 15 Manufacturing USA institutes are partnering with each other and their members to take on this task and transform U.S. manufacturing.
These efforts were the focus of a June 28th congressional briefing, “Managing and Rethinking the Supply Chain,” hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) (https://youtu.be/DM3KABnHESA). The briefing featured speakers from the Manufacturing USA institutes, academia, and industry, including: John Dyck, Chief Executive Officer, Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII); Gary Fedder, Howard M. Wilkoff Professor, Carnegie Mellon Univ.; Jeff Kent, Vice President, Smart Platforms Technology and Innovation, Procter & Gamble; and me (Bill Grieco, Chief Executive Officer, RAPID Manufacturing Institute).
The panelists outlined several strategies for improving U.S. manufacturing and strengthening supply chains. I shared some case studies to illustrate how RAPID’s work on modular manufacturing is transforming the process industries and enabling a more distributed production footprint. Smaller scale, modular process technologies will allow producers to commercialize new manufacturing platforms at lower capital and operating costs. Products can be manufactured closer to raw materials sources and/or product consumers, increasing manufacturing sustainability.
To ensure clearer signaling between consumers (demand) and producers (supply), Dyck presented a CESMII effort to develop a secure data exchange. Sellers and buyers can use the exchange along various value chains to safely communicate demand data. The system would give manufacturers more insight into demand profile changes, allowing suppliers to adjust manufacturing capacity to respond to consumer needs in real time. This would help to overhaul the highly specialized, just-in-time supply chains of today.
The workforce will need to be ready to support the manufacturing transformation. Fedder described the need to educate and develop the future manufacturing workforce. He shared both academic and industry perspectives on the evolving set of skills needed by industry. Internships offered by institutes and on-the-job training will play a key role in readying individuals to contribute to the manufacturing transformation.
Manufacturing resilience cannot be ensured without a clear view of supply chains. Kent shared details of a federally funded university and industry project for mapping supply chains. Along with other partners, Procter & Gamble is deploying a unique systems analysis tool to understand and map supply chains for chemicals and materials manufacturing. Careful analysis and mapping of current national and international supply chains will help identify gaps in domestic supply of strategically important products and identify potential upgrades.
The panel offered a glimpse into the future of U.S. manufacturing and proposed some pathways to get there. Future supply chains can be made more resilient to crises by selectively evolving from large, centralized manufacturing to smaller, distributed production facilities that operate more independently. These facilities can be located in underserved communities, helping to drive economic development via job creation. Tight data integration along the value chain can match supply of products from new and existing manufacturing assets to changing market demand. New virtual training and development tools, as well as opportunities for practical work experience, will help to strengthen the manufacturing workforce and ensure this future.
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