Industry 4.0: Manufacturing in the United States

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Feature

By Thomas Kurfuss

Industry 4.0 stems from the realization that a 4th industrial revolution is upon us. The 1st industrial revolution was driven by the advent of steam engines being used to power production facilities. This provided a more flexible and powerful energy source for machinery not situated near a natural source of power such as a river. The 2nd industrial revolution was driven by the assembly line, exemplified by Henry Ford a century ago. The 3rd industrial revolution, which occurred in the 1970s, was driven by the use of computers in production. The widespread use of CNC machines, computer processing of quality and logistics information, as well as the computerization of a wide variety of manual tasks such as accounting, inventory control, and scheduling, were all transformed during the 3rd industrial revolution. Integrated smart processes and products generating so-called big data that are completely changing the landscape of manufacturing and the marketplace, as it has come to be known, are driving the 4th industrial revolution, or “Industry 4.0.” This revolution is not only about using data during production, or even integrating data from a wide variety of manufacturing systems throughout the supply chain. It is about analyzing and integrating total product and process life cycle so the product and customer communicate directly with manufacturing systems and personnel to ensure that each individual customer receives exactly the product that they desire. This enables suppliers to better understand how their products and production operations are performing, and how customers’ needs and desires change over time. With such a capability, industry can effectively, efficiently, and rapidly supply customers with a product that suits their needs, and accurately predict and satisfy global customer demand in a rapidly changing world.

Manufacturing in the United States

First: Manufacturing has always been important to the United States and will continue to be important in the future. Much has been written about manufacturing returning to the United States and, while this is true, it is important to note that historically the United States has had the largest manufacturing economy for quite some time. Today, China’s manufacturing economy is growing rapidly to support their domestic needs, and China is arguably the world’s largest manufacturing economy. A number of metrics are available, but it is reasonable to state that the United States is and will be one of the top two manufacturing economies in the future, no matter how one defines manufacturing.

Second: Manufacturing today is vastly different from what most individuals envision. Individuals unfamiliar with modern manufacturing operations often think of Henry Ford and his assembly line used over a century ago. Remember, that was the second industrial revolution, and now we are at Industry 4.0! Today, if one goes to a modern automotive production facility, one will see the assembly line of the 21st century, which is incredibly high tech, worker friendly, and very hygienic. One of the classic statements heard when an individual views such a facility for the first time, is: “Wow, this place is so clean, you could eat off the floor.” The typical response is: “Yes, you could, but that would make a mess out of our factory.” The truth is that the technology in automotive production is well beyond what the uninitiated imagine when they think of “manufacturing cars.” Even the painting process is so critical and tightly controlled that in the modern paint shop, the workforce wears clean suits (like those used in micro-chip fabrication facilities) to avoid any possible dust contamination. One can imagine that even a speck of dust could wreak havoc on the quality of a paint job.

Third: The 3rd industrial revolution provided industry with manufacturing systems that individually have high amounts of computer power and sensors and generate large amounts of data. And the goods produced have computing, sensing, and data generation capabilities. For example, a typical car today might have 50 or 60 processors on board, and a higher-end car can have over 100 processors. So information flow is already available from the manufacturing processes and the product, but has only been utilized on a local basis. For example, a robot installing a car windshield might provide information regarding installation time and use of sealant, for ordering and resupply purposes – but this is a very local use of the data for the robot’s operation. However, every time the robot installs a windshield, it makes slight corrections based on variations in the shapes of the windshield and the car frame to ensure that the windshield is properly aligned and placed. At present, this information is not typically used to provide quality control information to the frame and windshield producers. But what if this information were shared with frame and windshield production systems? Might this improve the overall production and design processes for the cars? This is where Industry 4.0 comes into play, providing ample opportunity to think outside the box and make use of substantial amounts of the data that are already available.

Plenty of readily available data sets are out there, and the only requirement for leveraging those data is some innovative thinking. Thus, opportunities abound, especially if one is innovative – and innovation is a key element of American culture, unequalled anywhere else in the world. This perception has been embraced many times by both industry and government and is a long-standing focus of the current administration. If one goes to the White House web site (, a quick search for “advanced manufacturing” yields a wide variety of reports and articles, demonstrating our Nation’s interest in innovation and manufacturing.

In 2011 President Obama announced the formation of the “Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), a national effort bringing together industry, universities, and the federal government to invest in the emerging technologies that will create high quality manufacturing jobs and enhance our global competitiveness.”[1] AMP development was based on the recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which released a report entitled “Ensuring Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing.”[2] The PCAST report calls for a partnership between government, industry, and academia to identify the most pressing challenges and transformative opportunities to improve the technologies, processes, and products across multiple manufacturing industries. A subsequent report entitled “A National Strategic Plan for Advanced Manufacturing”[3] was prepared for the members of Congress by the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology (CoT) Interagency Working Group on Advanced Manufacturing (IAM), with coordination from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This report provides opportunities for federal policy to accelerate development of the advanced manufacturing sector, as well as challenges to the continuing health of advanced manufacturing in the United States. Based on the policy opportunities and the needs of the United States (from economic and national security perspectives), the AMP Steering Committee generated a final report entitled “Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing,”[4] that was adopted by PCAST. The report has 16 key recommendations that fall into three key areas: (1) enabling innovation, (2) securing the talent pipeline, and (3) improving the business climate.

These three key areas outline a clear path forward for the United States government to support advanced manufacturing, and a discussion of each of these areas is worthwhile. First, enabling innovation reflects the United States’ strong culture of innovation. Historically, many great concepts and ideas have been germinated in US companies by US citizens. The key reason for enabling innovation is to provide the means by which great ideas can be taken from the drawing board or the laboratory and rapidly scaled up to production. This directly addresses the fact that new products are being conceived rapidly and, to be competitive, such new products must get to the market as quickly as possible. The second key area is securing the talent pipeline. This issue focuses on workforce development for next-generation needs. To enable the rapid scale-up of new ideas into production requires a well-trained, innovative, and flexible workforce that can make use of new concepts and ideas and rapidly shift from older technologies to newer ones. The process entails training not only the next generation workforce, but also continuous training of the current workforce. Individuals will be in the workforce for decades, and without lifelong learning, areas of specialization can quickly become obsolete in a rapidly changing technology environment. Moreover, the rate at which technology is changing is accelerating, further highlighting the need for lifelong learning. The final key area is improving the business climate, which addresses issues such as tax reform, streamlining regulatory policy, improving trade policies, and updating energy policies.

Based on the findings of the AMP, the White House announced a second Advanced Manufacturing partnership (AMP2.0), which issued a final report entitled “Accelerating US Advanced Manufacturing,”[5] which was adopted by PCAST and transmitted to President Obama. The report presented a number of additional steps the Federal government can take to further US advanced manufacturing capabilities. In their letter to the President, PCAST states: “With the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes as a cornerstone of the Nation’s investment, implementing a Federal strategic plan in advanced manufacturing across all federal activities from the Institutes to individual agency program areas is one important step. Two others are: (1) ensuring that advanced manufacturing research addresses questions along the pipeline of technology maturity, and (2) leveraging federal organizations to improve information flow to manufacturers.”

United States Initiatives

Given the importance of manufacturing to the United States and the interest it has generated, many initiatives are currently being supported by the federal government. Some of these are discussed at the government’s Advanced Manufacturing Portal, Many of these initiatives are related to advancing the concepts in Industry 4.0, and leveraging such concepts to strengthen and grow the manufacturing sector in the United States. This web site contains a plethora of information regarding advanced manufacturing in the US. However, the two sets of links highlighted below are those related to the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) and the “Other Initiatives,” which are closely related to the innovation strategy of the United States. The information below is from the web site, and more details are available there.

National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)                                                              

President Obama has proposed building the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), consisting of regional hubs that will accelerate development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies for making new, globally competitive products. Over the last two years, he has acted to jump-start the network by launching four innovation hubs and initiating the establishment of four more, all by executive order while awaiting congressional action. In his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union Addresses, the President called for creating a full-fledged nationwide network devoted to innovating and scaling up advanced manufacturing technologies and processes. He has asked Congress to authorize a one-time $1 billion investment – to be matched by private and other non-federal funds – to create an initial network of up to 15 IMIs. He has proposed building out NNMI over 10 years, to encompass 45 IMIs. A description of the current and proposed institutes follows:

America Makes: National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, whose mission is to “accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies in the US manufacturing sector and to increase domestic manufacturing competitiveness.”

Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), whose mission is to “establish a state-of-the-art proving ground for digital manufacturing and design that links IT tools, standards, models, sensors, controls, practices, and skills, and transitions these tools to the US design & manufacturing industrial base for full-scale application.”

American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII), whose mission statement is to “Provide a national focus on expanding US competitiveness and innovation by facilitating the transition of advanced lightweight and modern metals manufacturing capabilities and new technologies to the industrial base.”

Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which is “focused on enabling the next generation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips and devices by making wide bandgap semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with current silicon-based power electronics in the next five years. These improvements will make power electronic devices like motors, consumer electronics, and devices that support our power grid faster, smaller, and more efficient.”

Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Composites Materials and Structures is a proposed institute that should be announced soon, addressing low cost, energy-efficient manufacturing of fiber-reinforced polymer composites.

Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IP-IMI) is the newest of the announced institutes and is currently being completed. Its mission is to “Establish a state-of-the-art in the design, manufacture, testing, assembly, and packaging of complex photonic integrated circuits that combine a variety of photonic and electronic components to achieve functionality.”

Other Initiatives                                                                                                                                                      

Besides the highly visible NNMI, other initiatives in the United States support manufacturing and will enable and make use of new concepts emerging from Industry 4.0. A few of these initiatives are listed in the following text, with short descriptions from their web sites.

The Materials Genome Initiative is a multi-agency initiative designed to create a new era of policy, resources, and infrastructure that support US institutions in their effort to discover, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost.[6]

The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots that work beside or cooperatively with people in the US.[7]

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) serves as the central point of communication, cooperation, and collaboration for all Federal agencies engaged in nanotechnology research, bringing together the expertise needed to advance this broad and complex field.” It has four major goals: (1) advancing a world-class nanotechnology research and development (R&D) program, (2) fostering the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit, (3) developing and sustaining educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology, and (4) supporting responsible development of nanotechnology.[8]

The Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) is a new Federal partnership that aims to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing and create a competitive climate for communities to attract manufacturing jobs and investment. The IMCP encourages communities to devise comprehensive economic development strategies that strengthen their competitive edge in attracting global manufacturers and their supply chains.[9]

The Obama Administration will build on the success of the National Export Initiative (NEI) and NEI/NEXT. The NEI is working to improve the conditions that directly affect the private sector’s ability to export. These conditions include the removal of trade barriers abroad, aiding firms and farmers to overcome hurdles to entering new markets, and assisting with financing. The initiative is based on a customer service-driven strategy with improved information resources to ensure that American businesses are fully able to capitalize on expanded opportunities to sell their goods and services abroad. NEI/NEXT will expand on the success of the NEI and help more American companies reach more overseas markets by improving data, providing information on specific export opportunities, working more closely with financing organizations and service providers, and partnering with states and communities to empower local export efforts.[10],[11]

SelectUSA seeks to highlight the many advantages the United States offers as a location for business and investment.[12]

Startup America” is a White House initiative to celebrate, inspire, and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the nation. This coordinated public/private effort brings together an alliance of the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs, corporations, universities, foundations, and other leaders, working in concert with a wide range of federal agencies to dramatically increase the prevalence and success of America’s entrepreneurs. This mission to promote entrepreneurship is a core component of President Obama’s national innovation strategy for achieving sustainable growth and quality jobs. The core goals of Startup America are to increase the number and scale of new high-growth firms that are creating economic growth, innovation, and quality jobs; to celebrate and honor entrepreneurship as a core American value and a source of competitive advantage; and to inspire and empower an ever-greater diversity of communities and individuals to build great American companies.[13]

This US Environmental Protection Agency is supporting Sustainable Manufacturing within the United States via its web site that contains information and resources for improving the sustainability and competitiveness of manufacturing companies. This site provides a single access point to concepts and tools that are critical for sustainable manufacturing, including a description of the business case for sustainable manufacturing, a central clearinghouse of sustainable manufacturing-related programs and resources, case studies demonstrating sustainable manufacturing in practice, tools developed to assess or enhance sustainable manufacturing practices, and information on federal programs that support sustainable manufacturing.[14]

Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP)

Perhaps the most important key to success for Industry 4.0 is to engage industry in the process. While large companies have the technical expertise, perspective, and infrastructure to embrace the opportunities afforded by Industry 4.0, in many instances the suppliers, especially the small and medium sized manufacturers (SMMs), do not. Such companies are critical to the US manufacturing ecosystem, as they represent nearly 99 percent of manufacturing firms in the US. The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has been in existence since 1988 ( and is committed to strengthening US manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers. MEP’s strategic objective is to create value for all manufacturers, with a particular focus on SMMs. This particular program is key to Industry 4.0’s success, as MEP provides new concepts, training, and technology to the SMMs. Note that MEP has well-established links to the SMMs and can deliver new capabilities to the SMMs as they emerge in the marketplace. The ability to ensure that every SMM can rapidly scale the appropriate technologies to their needs ensures that the small suppliers can meet the needs of the large OEM’s, the market, and the world. The MEP is important enough to the sustained success of Industry 4.0 in the US that it deserved to be highlighted with its own section in this article. It provides a key element to “ensuring the talent pipeline” and “enabling innovation.”


Industry 4.0 will revolutionize manufacturing around the globe, as did the first three industrial revolutions. With global supply chains and highly interactive markets, this revolution will be vastly different from the previous ones: being much faster and generating results that were heretofore unexpected. It will highlight the fact that small changes in one area of the manufacturing ecosystem will create significant ripples throughout the ecosystem, due to connectivity throughout the supply chain and the speed at which information propagates. Furthermore, Industry 4.0 will enable information to flow not only from manufacturer to product, but between producers, products and, most importantly, customers. The ability to embrace Industry 4.0 and use the opportunities that will rapidly (and, in many instances, unexpectedly) present themselves will be a key to success in the new global market. Enabling that innovation to proceed from a concept to a mass-produced product will be critical for success; and ensuring a talent pool in the manufacturing workforce that can move those innovations rapidly forward will be equally important. The United States has a number of programs to enable innovation and ensure the talent pipeline for manufacturing. Some are well established, and others are quite new and very innovative. It is clear that Industry 4.0 presents tremendous opportunities, and this fact highlights the need for a highly trained and flexible workforce and production capacity that can answer the needs of tomorrow as well as those of today.

In closing, it is appropriate to quote Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), a 20th century American philosopher: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” This statement was true in the 20th century and is certainly true today. However, with the ever accelerating pace of technology innovation, it will become increasingly pertinent in the future. The United States stands ready for that future: not only to participate, but also to lead!