As promising the future is for manufacturing, company executives today bemoan the uncertainty that grips the sector. Today, it’s tariffs. Yesterday, a lack of skilled workers. Tomorrow, a slow and uneven integration of technology that leaves manufacturers vulnerable to global competition.

Jeff St. Clair touched on the latter theme this week in a smart story, “Industry 4.0 and the Race to Save Small Manufacturing in America.” St. Clair describes the industrial chronology as “The introduction of robots and automation marked Industry 3.0, and making them smart and integrated, well, that’s Industry 4.0“.

But if Industry 4.0 is the savior for small manufacturers, and the race is on, many companies remain stuck at the starting line. For small to middle-market firms, the move to Industry 3.0 can be messy and uneven. And few would say that the equipment on their shop floors is part of a full-on integrated digital network, though most would acknowledge the need, as shop owner Dan Collins notes in the story, “to make parts faster, quicker, more repeatable, less scrap, those types of things have forced our hand.”

Collins operates equipment for a spring manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio, but his story is no different than a thousand job shops and small industrial firms in California. Across the supply chains of a thousand more OEMs, contract manufacturers are being asked to innovate processes and products, to digitally transform – and do more. For some it’s an opportunity. Investments that Timo Lunceford’s Ventura-based Swiss Productions have made are compelling OEMs to direct more work his way.

For others the path is less clear. Is 3D printing an answer? IoT? AI or Blockchain? Search “manufacturing news” on Google this week and find references to all the above — and speculation as to their pivotal role in the future of manufacturing.

It’s a challenge not lost on educators, especially those charged with fielding manufacturing’s next skilled workforce. Matthew Sweeney is director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center at the Community College of Denver. Sweeney’s curriculum is a bit of a moving target. Today he’s hungry for instructors with expertise in topics that align with leading-edge technologies that so many believe will make or break the sector.

“For example, in machining we’re moving away from the manual machining skillset in favor of operating advanced machinery like 5-axis and Wire EDM,” Sweeney says. “This doesn’t even account for all of the disruption that big data and IoT is having in the modern manufacturing environment.”

So Industry 4.0 is here, if also a ways off. “Just like industry, we struggle to find talented instructors with expertise in these areas,” Sweeney explains. “Those few experts who understand the scope and impact of technologies like IoT, AI, 3D printing, blockchain, and augmented reality are highly sought after. If we only have the resources to hire retirees with expertise in Industry 2.0 or 3.0, then our programs will continue to train in this context. That’s why partnering with industry for professional development, part-time talent, and leading-edge technology is important to the long-term success our training programs. If we can learn alongside industry, then that would be the tide that lifts all boats in our community.”

The challenge for manufacturers is that time waits for no one. In the aerospace supply chain alone, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, and Airbus, among others, demand that contract manufacturers make parts faster and quicker, to lower tolerances, with new materials. Meaning that every supplier must be evolving, upgrading, digitizing — and learning.

It’s no easy task. Cost, complexity, the impact on employees and business processes, and other factors combine to make even Industry 3.0 an ambitious undertaking. For many companies — and educators — it’s akin to changing the tires on a moving vehicle.

A fast-moving vehicle. The race is on.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at