Looking Forward: What’s ahead for manufacturing

If only Illinois manufacturers 100 years ago could have traveled in time to see what their industry descendants would be making every day in their shops. They most certainly would have returned to the 1900s speechless.

The same could be said of manufacturers a mere 20 years ago. But really could anyone have imagined what a manufacturing reality in 2021 would be?


Forbes’ recently gave insight to a new development in additive manufacturing that is eerily similar to something one would see on a Star Trek re-run: a machine-made transplantable organ – 3D printed with gooey and soft materials, not the hard plastics printed most often now.

“Imagine a very fine, highly detailed sponge-like structure with wall thicknesses a fraction of the diameter of a human hair, but yet strong enough to support cell growth and blood flow needed to sustain life,” Dr. Jeffrey Graves, President and CEO of 3D Systems told Forbes’ writer Jim Vinoski.

“It allows for the creation of organs using actual human cells, which will reduce the chance the body rejects the transplant. The structure is designed and created to allow vascularization, so there’s plenty of blood flowing to the tissues.”

Graves said to grasp the reality better, one would need to think about replacement tissue for trauma patients, or tissue to allow for better breast reconstruction for cancer survivors.

That amazing development is only a few years away, Vinoski wrote.


And while many traditional manufacturers have denied 3D printing will ever be a useful tool, the industry says now additive manufacturing is a fast-growing trend as it is first and foremost a significant time- and cost-saving tool.

In fact, additive manufacturing is growing quickly in the metal fabrication industry as significant cost savings are realized by shorter product development times and reduced tooling costs.


Another field that early 20th Century manufacturers would have struggled to visualize is the astonishing developments in robotics. While machines have been developed over the decades to speed up and make easier and more accurate manufacturing processes, few could have ever imagined automation so accurate and flexible that their activities would work hand-in-hand with humans.

Collaborative robots, or co-bots, as they’ve become called, are becoming so advanced that concerns about automation negatively impacting the manufacturing workforce are dissolving. Indeed, robots and people are working side-by-side to develop quicker and safer efforts.

Co-bots are being created to lift heavy objects and perform monotonous processes while their human partners focus on skilled tasks.


Now add to co-bots and additive manufacturing the reality of artificial intelligence (AI). Inventory management, customer orders, tracking, transporting, shipping – they are all affected by what is going on and what needs to be happening within a plant. All of that can now be tracked by artificial intelligence and the data it collects.

Even the smallest of manufacturers understand how crucial accurate information is – and how valuable data can be in predicting trends and demands.

The details AI can provide now takes away the guessing and instincts manufacturers had to live and die by in decades past.

That’s sure to only get better in the coming years – and less expensive as well.


That leads to enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology that is much more available now due to cloudbased SaaS options that are easier to put into action and make financially feasible for small businesses.

The new ERP systems help manufacturers automate different areas of operations under one comprehensive system – a win-win for manufacturers in the 21st century.


And how can a quick assessment of how manufacturing has developed at lightning speed in the last few years not include a mention of the Internet of Things (IoT) that uses smart sensors and the cloud?

Hundreds of billions will be invested in new products with IoT capabilities in the years to come – producing an inestimable amount of valued, irreplaceable work for manufacturing.


Manufacturing is expected to continue and ramp up the reshoring trend, while politicians will likely determine whether green energy products or traditional energy sources win the production war.


During the COVID crisis, TMA went through several psychological stages as did every other business and organization in the world. The association and its leadership asked themselves – like everyone else – important questions they never, ever imagined addressing.

1. How do we keep our employees safe from COVID-19 while adapting to major societal and environmental changes all around us?

2. How do we help our valued TMA members and reconstruct our services to be of assistance?

3. What can we do to stay in contact with our members while staying socially-distanced?

The questions went on and on – and sooner rather than later, dramatic changes were made, using the tools on hand while plunging into previously unknown territories.


TMA Training and Education’s in-person classes had to close down just weeks before students were about to finish up their 3-year course and graduate with certifications in tool & die, mold making and CNC programming.

The staff shifted into high gear to learn on-line learning software in order to provide on-line instruction for enrolled students.

Those students – many which were deemed “essential” – continued to work during the day and learn from screens when they were not on duty. The instructors adapted their curriculum to screens – learning how to answer questions while presenting crucial lessons.

It was quite the challenge, TMA T&E staff and instructors say, but they met that challenge and adapted quickly.

TMA’s Member Development representatives quickly moved to answering emails and phone calls rather than their traditional in-person visits with TMA members.

Staying socially-distant all the time, Member Development staffers delivered graduation diplomas to TMA students in the early summer and later in the fall, delivered hundreds of yard signs to pump up TMA’s coalition effort to stop Governor Pritzker’s Progressive Tax Amendment effort.

TMA-BSI handled hundreds of questions from TMA members about COVID-19, how their health insurance would be of assistance – all the while searching to answer questions that were yet to have solutions.

TMA’s Member Engagement Department swung into high gear by developing a daily email with an emphasis in reporting breaking developments concerning PPEs, health issues in “essential” environments, federal government assistance programs, among a myriad of other topics.

At the same time, the MarComm staff learned and set up webinars to keep TMA members and non-members informed about a myriad of topics – all still available on the TMAIllinois.org website archives.


TMA worked hard to step up during the COVID challenge, and will continue to adapt to the fast-paced future using the skills and techniques learned during the crisis – just as TMA members have done and will do in their companies.

In 1925, a group of Chicago area manufacturers saw the need to network, communicate and assist each other in order for all to be successful. They demonstrated the nowfamous term “#BetterTogether” 100 years before it would become a universally recognized COVID-related hashtag.

Together, the Founders took on challenges and met them just as manufacturing was becoming a force. They formed a group now known as Technology & Manufacturing Association because the need was great then and is now.


Nearly 100 years later, transplantable organs are being manufactured. Robots are used to make skilled work better and more efficient. Computers are used for inventory and communication and AI is used by upstart, boutique companies developing every day.

What manufacturing will be in 100 years is unimaginable.

As an association, TMA will work hard to meet our manufacturing members’ needs through the next century
– wherever that takes the industry.

From TMA’s January-February 2021 News Bulletin. By Fran Eaton, News Bulletin editor/TMA social media director