Manufacturing and Design Faces a Huge Skills Gap in the Industry 4.0 Era

Autodesk and ASME report highlights how education and skills training must evolve to address the needs of converging roles over the next decade.

Autodesk and ASME report highlights how education and skills training must evolve to address the needs of converging roles over the next decade.

Industry 4.0 holds out the promise of digitally empowering manufacturing and product design, enabling companies to develop better products, operate with greater efficiencies, and be agile enough to outpace the competition.

New technologies and design methods, from design for manufacturing (DfM) practices to AI/ML-driven generative design tools, will be the springboard for companies to capitalize on the new paradigm. Yet the reality is there’s a shortage of trained experts with these competencies and perhaps even more alarming, a significant skills gap between what the industry workforce requires and the capabilities of those graduating university and training programs.

To provide guidance on how industry and academia need to retool for advanced manufacturing, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Autodesk conducted a multi-phase research project on “The Future of Manufacturing.” The report examined the traditional roles of mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, and CNC machinists, determining that each will need sufficient reskilling to fulfill the demands of evolving responsibilities. The report cites 2020 data from the World Economic Forum, which estimated that half of all manufacturing employees will need some kind of reskilling.

The problem is much of the current U.S. education curriculum remains unchanged, emphasizing mathematics and physics over project-based learning and hands-on applications, and creating a widening skills gap among new manufacturing workers. The report said future success depends on developing “new manufacturing education pedagogies” to effectively train workers with the necessary Industry 4.0 technologies and skills. Specifically, the report called out technical skills such as AI/ML, programming, data analysis, and visualization; soft skills in areas like collaboration and problem-solving; and interdisciplinary skills that include systems engineering, PLM, integrated CAD/CAM, sustainability, automation, and supply chain management.

Industry and academia respondents agreed on the growing importance of DfM knowledge and AI/ML across the three critical roles while nearly all (90%) of respondents to the survey zeroed in on DfM knowledge as the best way for academia to cultivate a future manufacturing workforce.

Over the next five to 10 years, the research painted a picture of how the three critical roles will evolve, including required new skill sets:

Mechanical engineers will be central to developing products that are designed for manufacturability and are more intelligent and sustainable. As a result, mechanical engineers will need to branch beyond their traditional scope to be adept at designing with electronics as well as product modularity that will extend the product lifecycle. To address the added complexity, the ASME/Autodesk report found that mechanical engineers will need skills in areas like design for additive manufacturing (71%) as well as in CAD/CAM (67%), and PLM (73%). Academic respondents expect increasing emphasis on generative design (80%) and programming techniques (75%).

Manufacturing engineers will be immersed in applying technologies like AI/ML to improve automation results and advancing AM processes. They will also be tapped for smart manufacturing practices like programming production lines, managing distributed manufacturing locations, and deploying real-time monitoring systems. They will need to have knowledge of robotics, AM processes, production data analytics and visualizations, and digital twins, the report found. Nearly three quarters of industry respondents believe human-robotic interaction (72%) and automation (74%) will become more important for this role.

CNC machinists are destined to take the biggest step forward with the advent of Industry 4.0 technologies. Their positions will expand to managing and programming robots, analyzing real-time production output, shop-floor inspection, and participation in quality assurance and quality control. In addition to developing new skills in AI/ML, this new class of CNC professional will need familiarity with five-axis machines, AM, and hybrid manufacturing. They will need to be comfortable getting more involved in upstream processes like design. As a result, the survey respondents expect workers on this path to require knowledge of CAM (86%) and CAD software (82%).

To address these deficiencies, the report makes a number of recommendations:

Role of Industry:

  • Develop the manufacturing workforce of the future by partnering on internships and co-op programs along with collaboration with local colleges and community colleges to develop certification programs.
  • Promote internal training programs and regular job and project rotations to expose workers to a range of cross-functional disciplines.
  • Industry executives should take an active role in college advisory boards and take part-time faculty roles to aid in curriculum development.
  • Demonstrate the high-tech and sustainability lure of advanced manufacturing to a younger audience to establish it as a worthy career path.

Role of academia:

  • Refocus manufacturing education towards a real-world, hands-on project-based pedogogy with a focus on interdisciplinary skills while avoiding an over-generalized approach and without abandoning engineering fundamentals.
  • Develop more certifications for software, roles, or specific machines to advance skills knowledge.
  • Recruit faculty from current industry professionals to teach in-demand DfM skills to the next generation.
  • Create opportunity for apprenticeships, co-op programs, and internships.

To learn about how industry and academia can work together to advance Industry 4.0 digital skills, check out this video.

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About the Author

Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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