(image via Shutterstock)
(image via Shutterstock)

A major challenge to creating and filling manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is the ever-increasing skills gap. There is a widespread misconception that these jobs are low-skill. To the contrary, a large portion of U.S. manufacturing is complex, requiring a high level of expertise that is hard to find.
Investment in improved education and training is surely needed to fill more jobs. But the long-term solution is to lower the barriers of entry to manufacturing work through technology—specifically by using widely accessible, easy-to-use automation software that grows revenues, increases efficiencies, and reduces costs for manufacturers and their customers. People will still be needed to work seamlessly with machines, robots, and computers, but software will enable less highly trained workers to enter the industry.
In speaking with American job shops—typically small manufacturers who produce small batches of custom parts and represent about 95 percent of the 300,000 manufacturers in the U.S.—I have found that much of the staff requires a certain degree of training and on-the-job experience. In some functions, extensive training and a high-level of education are necessary. All of this takes quite a bit of time and money. (In a NY Times blog, a manufacturer details this and its hesitation in hiring.)
This is especially true in developing “gurus” in the shop who are able to validate a design’s manufacturability, price quotes accurately, and create efficient processes and manufacturing plans.
In many job shops, such activities require deep expertise, are predominantly manual, and involve multiple steps: A client sends a computer-aided design file for a desired product; then an expert, or guru, reviews the file, validates its manufacturability, and creates a spreadsheet that outlines the cost and process for manufacture. This person is familiar with the manufacturer’s equipment, logistics, and machine operators. When an original design is not manufacturable, as is often the case if the customer lacks manufacturing expertise or knowledge of the vendor, a design-manufacturing validation iteration cycle begins and sometimes can take several weeks.
The buzz about 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing,” is so loud it’s easy to mistake it for a technology that will solve all of manufacturing’s challenges. Prices for 3D printers are dropping furiously—entry-level home versions go for under $500; top-level industrial versions are under $500,000—and development of a variety of printable materials is steadily advancing. There’s even talk about printing out electronics integrated into the mechanical structures.
But for many factories of the future, the 3D printer will simply be an important piece of equipment that works in harmony with other elements. The shop gurus will still be needed. And either they will expand their skills to 3D printing, or a company will need to hire and integrate this new skill set as additional headcount. The skills barrier keeps rising.
Manufacturing a product is not as easy as selecting an available printer, going through a print-preview-edit cycle and then pressing print. But this should be the goal.
In document printing, a user doesn’t need to know the details of the printer capabilities or printing process itself.  A lot of heavy lifting is done behind the scenes, directed by software, such as the printer driver and a print job scheduler, enabling anyone to easily produce a document. What if this was done in manufacturing?
One embodiment might be:

Document printingFuture manufacturing
Select document fileSelect CAD file
Select a printer from menuSelect a manufacturer from menu
“Print preview” and edit cycle“Manufacturing preview” (manufacturability validation, price, delivery) and edit cycle
Hit “Print”Hit “Make”
Receive documentReceive product

To quickly scale their businesses today, many job shops would require more and faster working gurus. But because they are so hard to find, this is where software can make a difference by lowering barriers to entry.
For example, using a cloud-based solution, job shops would just need to input their machine list and a few details of their operations. Prospective customers could get customized and automated “manufacturing previews” delivered instantly, calculated and derived behind the scenes via advanced algorithms and analytics. Once clients hit the “make” button, the software could generate the correct codes and optimal manufacturing and process plans for the chosen manufacturer’s systems.
While shop gurus will always be needed, such software could enable American job shops to stay competitive, re-shore our manufacturing jobs, and keep them here for good.
Leon Wong is director of market strategy at PARC, a Xerox company.