Trends in Manufacturing Engineering

Despite labor shortages, the manufacturing industry is on the move. The production of industrial goods, ranging from aircrafts to automobiles to chemicals, is surpassing pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, the industry is shifting from the traditional machine-based assembly lines to newer smart factories.  

For engineers working in this industry, it’s essential to stay in the know. Let’s look at five trends shaping the manufacturing industry of tomorrow. 

Key Trends to Know 

1. Advanced Manufacturing
Advances in manufacturing continue to progress at a remarkable pace.  Industry 4.0 is the affectionate moniker for the generational shift from traditional machine-based assembly lines to smart factories, where humans and robots collaborate.

Leading manufacturers are investing in: 

    • Robotics and automation: Worker robots and cobots are implemented to speed up manufacturing, reduce costs and alleviate labor shortages.  
    • IoT (Internet of Things): Digital technologies such as sensors embedded in factory floors or industrial equipment allow data to be collected and analyzed with the goal of optimized manufacturing. 
    • Digital twins: Engineers are using simulations to enhance operations. One example is the construction of a simulated production cell where simulations predict output changes based on supply, queue and uptime functions.
    •  Additive manufacturing: Also known as 3D printing, is being used to create complex systems for cell fixtures and rapid prototyping for new product introductions.
    • Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR): These virtual tools can be used for training, assembly instructions, remote assistance and remote or predictive maintenance.  

2.  Employee Retention
A rapidly aging population means there are more manufacturing jobs than there are professionals to fill them: a trend that will accelerate in coming years. The manufacturing skills shortage could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030 and cost the industry around $1 trillion dollars 

Reports of unstable and unsafe work environments, coupled with decades of labor offshoring and outsourcing, have made it harder to attract new talent to the manufacturing sector. However, recent efforts by manufacturers aim to address this challenge by: 

    •  Raising wages: This strategy is used to attract higher-skilled workers.
    • Reskilling employees: A 2020 study by The Manufacturing Institute’s Center for Manufacturing Research found that nearly 70% of manufacturing employees are attracted to employers that invest in their staff — a practice especially crucial as the industry is digitalizing.
    • Modernizing facilities: Robots are programmed to take on more dangerous tasks, allowing employees to use their unique skills to operate this advanced technology.
    • Reshoring: In recent years, many manufacturers have chosen to bring their operations closer to home to ensure continuity in the supply chain.  There is also a move to vertical integration for competitive advantage and reduced leadtimes. 

 These changes are leading to manufacturing to be a leading industry for the US economy. 

 3. Sustainable Systems & Carbon Neutrality
Carbon neutrality refers to the balancing and offsetting of carbon emissions through carbon removal. Sustainability is unavoidable: Virtually every company producing emissions will eventually be forced to comply with environmental regulations in a joint corporate social responsibility (CSR). A 2023 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that 23% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are caused by the industrial sector. Manufacturers are approaching this challenge by investing in: 

    • Smart buildings: Technologies such as sensor-controlled heating and lighting systems drive down overall energy consumption. 
    • Renewable energy sources: Manufacturers are investing in renewable systems including wind, solar and geothermal to run their facilities and operations.  Electric vehicles are being used in the plant and for transportation to distribution centers.
    • Recycling Initiatives: Companies are increasingly prioritizing the entire life cycle of their products, encompassing the manufacturing processes.  Manufacturers are dedicated to minimizing the use of chemicals in their internal operations and substantially decreasing the volume of materials sent to landfills.  The elimination of forever chemicals from the shop floor represents a significant benefit for everyone. 

4. Data Analytics
With enhanced computing power, systems and tools engineers can now solve problems leveraging tremendous amounts of data available through plant operations using:

    • Predictive maintenances: Using data analytics to predict equipment failures and schedule maintenance before breakdowns occure, minimizing downtime and reducing costs. 
    • Quality control and defect detection: Leveraging data analytics to identify patterns and anomalies in production processes, ensuring high-quality output and reducing waste. 
    • Process Optimization: Using data analytics to optimize manufacturing processes, improve productivity, and optimize resource utilization. 
    • Real-time monitoring and control: Implementing data analytics solutions for real-time monitoring of production processes, enabling quick response to deviations and ensuring consistent quality. 
    • Cybersecurity: A critical safeguard as factories become more digitalized. 

 5. Supply Chain Resilience 

The worldwide supply chain disruption of 2020 led manufacturers to make drastic changes to ensure their own resilience. Some of these shifts include: 

    • Data-driven inventory management: A method manufacturers use to identify supply chain inefficiencies and quickly adapt to minimize disruptions.
    • Shifting to products as a service: This transition can provide the manufacturer with a steady revenue stream and long-term relationships with consumers.
    • Supplier diversification and risk management: The pandemic highlighted the risks associated with over-reliance on a single supplier or geographic region. Diversifying the supply chain and implementing robust risk management strategies now mitigate disruptions caused by geopolitical tensions, trade conflicts, or unexpected events. 

Forge New Paths with an Online MS in Manufacturing Systems Engineering 

The dynamic environment of the manufacturing industry requires systems engineers to wear many hats. Modern systems engineers must:  

    • adapt to rapid technological advancements. 
    • embrace interdisciplinary skills.  
    • improve sustainability. 
    • address cybersecurity concerns.  
    • navigate a changing supply chain.  
    • collaborate effectively with diverse and often international teams. 

Embracing these significant responsibilities requires constant skill enhancement and staying updated on the latest trends, research and developments. The University of Wisconsin–Madison offers an entirely online Master of Science in Manufacturing Systems Engineering tailored for engineers like you who are balancing personal and professional commitments. Explore the intricacies of diverse manufacturing sectors like food and beverage, automotive and aerospace. MSE graduates emerge as adept leaders whose relevant expertise equips them to tackle the complex, dynamic challenges of the manufacturing industry. 

Ready to lead the engineers of tomorrow? Apply now!