Why software is going to save manufacturing. (Still)

Russ Waddell / July 31, 2015

After many, many years of promises about the digital revolution in manufacturing, a few things make now a reasonable time to repeat the promises again. New interest in manufacturing among software vendors, better infrastructure for networking and security, and good labor market conditions will lead to big efficiency gains and help promote manufacturing workforce development.

Software toolbox

Interest in software for manufacturing is coming from both inside the industry and from outside. From the inside, many manufacturers are developing or commissioning software solutions to supplement their existing product lines. While this has been the case for many years, a minimum overall comfort level with software as a key piece of business operations beyond the back office is a prerequisite for dealing with outside software developers. The frustrations of dealing with manufacturers who are wary of computers (yes, really) has long been a major deterrent to well-established software companies used to serving consumers, retail, or finance customers.

The IT infrastructure has also started to mature in manufacturing, although there are still big gaps between the market leaders and the average manufacturer. Networking for the factory floor has been possible for a long time, but it’s also been prohibitively expensive for most companies. Cheaper hardware has helped a little to make robust factory networks more common, but modern controls, retrofit options, and a general shift towards connectivity rather than 100% vertical integration has helped more and will be a major factor in getting the most out of software solutions.

Network factories

Security has always been a weakness when it comes to IT in manufacturing, and there has been a widespread hesitation to adopt new software due to perceived security risks. There’s no question that security risks will impede adoption of modern software solutions in a factory environment, but there’s also no question that the benefits of software will eventually be just too big to ignore. Thankfully, manufacturing has reached out to IT security industry giants just as the security industry has started to notice manufacturing. With the two working together, risk mitigation can start to replace complete risk avoidance.

Some of the gains from software are old and obvious, but manufacturing is not unique in still missing out on them. Several very big, very important industries are notorious for just now starting to enter the age of the internet. Education, healthcare, and manufacturing are all critical sectors of the economy, yet have a reputation for moving at a glacial pace when it comes to adopting computers – much less networking. For manufacturing and these other sectors, much of the low-hanging fruit has yet to be plucked. For a factory, electronic work instructions are a nearly perfect parallel to electronic medical records. Both ideas have been around for decades, neither has become widely adopted. When so much of the rest of the economy has moved past paper record-keeping, it’s hard to imagine a long term future where this problem hasn’t also been solved in manufacturing.

As this low hanging fruit gets plucked, the substantial rewards to the companies and individuals who solve these problems will draw new talent into manufacturing. Software developers remain well-paid even though computers have been ubiquitous for decades, and one of the reasons for this is that the problems software solve create such large productivity gains. As programmers start solving manufacturing problems rather than producing the next Candy Crush Saga, more and more software talent will be pulled into the industry by the lure of better pay for solving bigger and better problems.

Low Hanging Fruit

Over the next five to ten years, manufacturing also has an almost unfair advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent from the software world. Robots, laser cutters, waterjets, and CNC machines are both 100% dependent on software to run, and are inherently appealing to many of the very same people who work in software (it’s called Software Engineer for a reason). Although it might be hard for some manufacturers to admit, the workforce of the future won’t have the same skill set as the workforce of previous generations. Engaging with today’s and tomorrow’s computer programmers and rewarding them well for solving big manufacturing problems will go a long way towards mitigating the threat of an aging manufacturing workforce.

In the year 2015, it’s embarrassing that so many people in manufacturing take software for granted outside the factory but continue to accept second rate and outdated solutions for production environments. Thankfully, trends inside and outside the industry are bringing changes that will help attract next-generation workers.