U.S. manufacturing continues its strong resurgence right now, driven by massive changes in technology and the global regulatory landscape. Start to understand four big trends transforming U.S. manufacturing today, as they promise to create even more productivity and job opportunities for the sector in the coming years. Let’s take a look at each trend in detail:

1. Increased Automation
This trend has profoundly impacted the entire global economy, and has been especially pronounced for U.S. manufacturing. Productivity in manufacturing has steadily increased due to automation: manufacturing output per hour between 2007 and 2016 increased by 15%. In the past decade, the most profitable U.S. manufacturers have generally deployed automation to drive productivity gains and better manage their costs. Automation has, of course, had an impact on employment in the sector. The Brookings Institute says that 5.7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs were shed between 2000 and 2010, yet overall manufacturing productivity grew at the same time. Today, new types of U.S. manufacturing jobs are being created, higher-paying jobs requiring that employees have skills in technology and data analysis.

When you visit any modern U.S. factory, one that’s globally competitive, you see a highly interconnected, data-enabled automated system that requires technical savvy to operate. It doesn’t matter whether the plant is building aircraft engines, solar panels or carburetors -- today’s factories are automated eco-systems that connect equipment, people, data, and more. And this interconnectedness goes far beyond the factory floor to include the supply chain. From a technological perspective, it takes integrated systems and tech-savvy employees to make all this automation work.

Understanding how all the components interact (automation/robots and software and systems) is extremely important for everyone in manufacturing today. This means that manufacturing employees and leaders need technical know-how around the entire manufacturing process. The blue-collar manufacturing roles of yesteryear are increasingly white collar (and highly-paid) today.

2. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, is often called “smart” manufacturing or “manufacturing 2.0.” Industrial equipment and robots increasingly have sensors attached that constantly collect and transmit relevant performance data that allows human decision-makers to monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) and make course corrections in real-time.

For example, if a production line is producing an unacceptably-high number of defective products, decision-makers can quickly identify that problem, perform diagnostics/analytics to find exactly where the problem is coming from, and then remedy the problem (even remotely through a dashboard) in order to put production back on track. As the manufacturing eco-system learns about and remedies problems, it can then integrate “lessons learned” and adapt its processes in real-time to drive continuous improvement. That’s what the IIoT is all about.

With the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence, IIoT reaches another level. AI technology can, for example, find market opportunities in the data and automatically retool the entire IIoT system to quickly take advantage of those opportunities. If manufacturer X sells 25% more of its products in the northwest region in November and December, for instance, predictive analytics can identify that trend and bring the entire production and distribution system along with it to meet that increased seasonal demand. The system, fully integrated and coordinated with data collected from multiple sensors, becomes truly intelligent and agile. Products get made, parts and materials get ordered to make those products, the warehouse is readied, etc., and all of this happens automatically.

3. Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing. While 3D printing began years ago with plastic and other simple materials, it’s now increasingly available for printing metal parts. Emerging 3D printing machines use a much wider variety of metals, which is driving further adoption among U.S. manufacturers. For example, the new additive manufacturing allows metal fabricators to print airplane parts quickly and at scale, replacing older fabrication methods like casting and CNC machining. 3D printing has moved beyond small-scale, “prototypes” and into mass manufacturing, though we’re only at the beginning of that next phase now.

While the possibilities created by emerging metal 3D printers are breathtaking, specifically the potential to produce metal parts quickly at scale without the need for tooling, the price tag on these “mass market” metal 3D printers remains high. Costs are coming down as new solutions and innovations get developed, and as big manufacturers like General Electric and Ford integrate this technology into their manufacturing operations.

Early adopters of metal 3D printing have included seven of the world’s top ten automakers, as well as companies in industries ranging from medical devices to clothing. One early adopter is Jabil, a manufacturer based in St. Petersburg, Florida, which makes a wide range of products from casings for iPhones to complex medical devices. “Jabil doesn’t do things where we want to have three or four [metal 3D printing] machines in a corner,” Jabil’s vice president of digital manufacturing John Dulchinos told Forbes. “We’re about finding applications where you leverage scale and manufacturing capability.” Other U.S. manufacturers are following Jabil’s lead.

4. More Reshoring of U.S. Manufacturing Jobs. Jobs that flowed out of the U.S. for years are now flowing back in. Rising wages in the developing world (especially China), trends in technology (see the 3 described above, for example), and some regulatory changes (i.e., tariffs) have caused many U.S. manufacturers (and even foreign manufacturers) to consider manufacturing in the U.S., bringing back jobs they’d previously offshored.

In 2016, US manufacturing jobs created by reshoring and foreign direct investment surpassed the number of jobs that were offshored, according to the Reshoring Initiative. The years 2017 and 2018 saw more “re-shored jobs” coming back to the U.S. than any other years on record, with 170,000 jobs re-shored in 2017 and 145,000 more coming back in 2018, according to Industry Week. For the first time in decades, more manufacturing jobs are coming back than going out.

Of course, the manufacturing jobs that left the U.S. in the 1990s are not the same jobs being re-shored today. As technology trends emerge, U.S. manufacturers are far more technological today, and need employees who can manage their growing technologies and data. That said, U.S. manufacturers are far more competitive today at global scale.

The four trends described above are creating more opportunities to boost productivity and employment levels for the U.S. manufacturing sector, which appears to be experiencing a renaissance. The companies that understand and adjust to these four emerging trends will be the ones most likely to succeed, on both a local and global scale.