Manufacturing Shouldn’t Be A Dirty Word For Today’s STEM Talent

Editor’s note: Vicki Holt is president and CEO of Proto Labs.

When most people hear the wordmanufacturing,” a few images tend to come to mind: low skill, wrench-turning, physically draining work; dirty, grease-stained workplaces; a male-dominated workforce. For whatever reason, these stereotypes persist, and they are antiquated and misleading.

Thanks to massive advancements in automation technology and analytics software, the American manufacturing industry of today is a far cry from the assembly lines and manual labor of the past. Manufacturing in the 21st century is a high-tech fusion of software and mechanical engineering, automated processes and complex production equipment, 3D CAD models and on-demand parts. The fortunate result of this modern-day industrial revolution is an expanding demand for highly skilled STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-related positions.

I’ve watched our industry mature and transform greatly since I got my start in manufacturing in the 1980s, and I’m keenly aware of the central role information technology now plays. Our business model is anchored by production speed, but without the software programming that powers our manufacturing processes and enables our digital commerce business model, we would be unable to compete. Advancing that technology is integral to our success and requires good programmers and engineers from all backgrounds, male and female, with STEM education.

According to research released in 2013 by the Manpower Group, 93 percent of manufacturing managers agree that “manufacturing in North America will become increasingly important to any company’s future operations,” but that the right talent to fill the resurgent American manufacturing industry is currently in high demand but short supply. As a result of the shift to heavily automated, computer-based production systems, manufacturing jobs may never again reach the 1960s peak share of 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, but the jobs available in the industry require twice the skill, training and expertise.

The demand for computer science talent in manufacturing goes beyond just programming automation software to improve production processes. Programmers with a passion for sustainability can help make American factories more energy-efficient through using data to optimize energy usage, reduce material waste and ultimately improve overall efficiency.

Materials that would have simply been considered “waste” and sent to a landfill years ago can now be separated, recycled and reused within existing processes. Creative web designers with user-experience skills can help make ordering parts and prototypes as simple and easy for product designers as ordering a movie from Netflix or a new pair of shoes from Zappos.

Advances in technology have also made 3D design software more affordable, easier to learn and more readily available to the public, making it possible for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in product design to allow their passion to flourish. As a result, it’s now possible for inventors to upload a 3D CAD model of their invention, quickly receive an automated price quote based on the size and complexity of their model, approve its production and receive a prototype run of their invention in as little as a day or two.

This new product design economy, powered by IT innovation, is only just getting started. Demand for digitally enabled rapid prototyping services is expected to quadruple over the next decade to $12 billion, but this expected growth will only be realized through the continued convergence between the worlds of hardware and software.

Manufacturing stands as one of the industries best poised to benefit from the development of the Internet of Things, and the next generation of talent has a unique opportunity to digitally connect the elements of the modern factory floor with one another in innovative ways that will make American manufacturing competitive on a global scale once more.

Businesses in increasingly diverse industries are now defining themselves as “technology companies,” and it’s important for young STEM talent to broaden their horizons accordingly in looking for a perfect workplace fit. Manufacturing is one such industry in the midst of a renaissance that will be guided by information technology for decades to come.