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The Future of Manufacturing: Mass Production Becomes Agile Processes

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” ― H.G. Wells.

Bulk was boss: bulk buying, bulk design, bulk manufacturing, bulk shipping, bulk selling. Bulk was the best way to save on storage, material, and shipping costs—but it had its own price. Domestic manufacturing jobs began to disappear, shipped abroad to cheaper workforces. Massive cargo ships delivered bulk-crated products across oceans, to be carried across country by rail and road at great cost and complexity. Products languished in storage between manufacturing and delivery. Consumers had to wait for a mass-produced item or spend far more to have a single, custom item designed, manufactured and shipped. Something had to change.
Agile, lean, efficient processes are driving the largest transformation in manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution. A shift toward producing goods closer to the consumer is at the heart of it, moving away from sprawling industrial complexes in the shadow of urban landscapes. Scale is giving way to agility and mass production is becoming mass customization.

Production is scaled down, decentralized, and localized. Mass manufacturing becomes distributed manufacturing with small hubs close to consumer communities.

Design Ready Controls has four facilities—one each in Virginia, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Minnesota. They keep us close to our current customers, reducing costs and improving logistics. Proprietary software, such as our Automated Panel Expert (APE®) and Automated Manufacturing Expert (AME), allows us to build customized control panels with reduced lead times. We can produce exact multiples of the same design or variations on each one, all with the same attention to detail.

This latest manufacturing revolution is made possible—maybe even inevitable—because offshore manufacturing is not always cost-effective. Shipping costs, logistical difficulties, politics, and communication barriers all offset the savings of overseas, bulk manufacturing. Changing consumer habits play their part as well, with tech-savvy millennials demanding both instant satisfaction and environmental sustainability.

Flexible and data-driven technologies are reshaping manufacturing: advanced robotics, 3D printing, manufacturing automation for custom products, the Industrial Internet of Things, and agile software. They are pushing the boundaries of what was successful in the past, and what we imagine manufacturing success will mean in the future.

These changes are also found in the garment manufacturing industry, where American brands known for overseas production are shifting in fundamental ways. The Reebok Liquid Speed shoe is American designed and manufactured in the new Reebok Liquid Factory. This facility replaced expensive molds with software, robotics, and an exclusive liquid material to physically “draw” the shoe outsole in layers. The shoes are designed, customized, and manufactured in far less time, and with greater agility for customization. Adidas is launching its Speedfactory in the United States this year. Under Armour has a new US facility, the UA Lighthouse, which uses 3D scan technology and software to custom design garments instead of using physical prototypes. Lead times have been cut from twelve months to three.

These new methods will eventually affect all manufacturing industries, providing benefits for consumers and manufacturers alike: increased productivity, higher employment, stronger growth, product innovation, reduced waste, and more sustainable processes. Bringing manufacturing close to the customer reduces the environmental impact of long-distance shipping, packaging, and additional product handling. Having the means of production close to consumers will bring outsourced jobs back to the country. Digital information and automation will improve productivity. Consumers will have greater flexibility in design and customization without additional cost or increased lead time. Manufacturers will find greater agility in their processes alongside reduced shipping requirements, improved logistics, and lower overhead costs.

This shift to local manufacturing makes it possible for Design Ready Controls and other manufacturers to adapt to changes in design and demand quickly and effectively. Production can be small in scale, with similar costs and lead time as mass production, yet still open to rapid customization. One item or one thousand, make specially to meet consumer demand, can be produced locally with reduced lead times. Geographically independent, decentralized manufacturing can flourish wherever customers are. By pursuing modern manufacturing practices, we are embracing the future…and creating it.

Erin Eliason, Digital Media Coordinator

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