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As additive manufacturing (AM) transforms the engineering and manufacturing industries, the broader manufacturing workforce is struggling to adapt to the rapid pace of change. An agile workforce planning process can help to bridge the AM talent gap.
Additive manufacturing (AM)—also known as 3D printing—has transformed innovation in the engineering and manufacturing industry, with applications ranging from jet engines;1 medical devices and implants such as custom hearing aids that can be produced rapidly and cheaply,2 and supply chain advantages in remote locations with the US Navy’s Print the Fleet initiative.3
Because AM represents a paradigm shift in design and production, well-trained talent—engineers and technicians—are critical to maximizing this technology.4 From the use of resins in vat polymerization to complex 3D laser cladding in directed energy deposition, AM innovations in materials and technologies demand new skills and capabilities, both technical and managerial. Yet many of these innovations have outpaced the ability of the broader manufacturing workforce to adapt:5 9 out of 10 manufacturers are struggling to find the skilled workers needed—a shortage that is impacting production, quality, innovation, and growth.6
To realize the full potential of AM, manufacturing organizations must focus on developing a capable and skilled AM workforce.
Further, just as its technologies impact the supply chain and product design, AM also revolutionizes how manufacturers structure and manage their technical workforce and changes the very design process itself, upending the way engineers collaborate.7 Thus, the demands on—and expectations for—AM talent are high: Technical and engineering skills required for successful AM deployment range widely, from equipment design to material technology to data management.8 At the same time, successful engineers must be creative, resourceful, and ready to “figure things out” in an industry that continues to develop and evolve, according to Taylor Landry, director of print solutions at MatterHackers, a California-based AM company.9
To realize the full potential of AM, manufacturing organizations must focus on developing a capable and skilled AM workforce. To close these skills gaps, universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology are preparing engineers for AM, including launching 3D printing labs to deliver hands-on training.10 Similarly, some manufacturing companies are starting to focus more on AM, offering on-the-job training to incoming and seasoned engineers. However, the challenges are real and significant: an aging population of seasoned manufacturing talent, a lack of interest in manufacturing among the younger workforce, reluctance to adapt to new design paradigms, and skills gaps around leveraging AM technologies.
Addressing these issues is crucial to implementing and scaling AM. Without a well-trained workforce capable of adapting to—and adopting—the applications and uses of AM, organizations may fail in their ability to integrate and implement AM processes effectively. These new design, development, and production processes require agile workforce allocation and management practices.
In this paper, we examine the challenges organizations face as they seek to hire, train, and retain engineers and technicians skilled in AM. We also explore the importance of a collaborative and iterative workforce planning process—an approach well suited to helping organizations identify and bridge the skills and organizational gaps they may encounter as they scale AM throughout their operations.
AM’s roots go back nearly three decades. Its importance is derived from its ability to break existing performance trade-offs in two fundamental ways. First, AM reduces the capital required to achieve economies of scale. Second, it increases flexibility and reduces the capital required to achieve scope.11
Capital versus scale: Considerations of minimum efficient scale can shape supply chains. AM has the potential to reduce the capital required to reach minimum efficient scale for production, thus lowering the manufacturing barriers to entry for a given location.
Capital versus scope: Economies of scope influence how and what products can be made. The flexibility of AM facilitates an increase in the variety of products a unit of capital can produce, reducing the costs associated with production changeovers and customization and, thus, the overall amount of required capital.
Changing the capital versus scale relationship has the potential to impact how supply chains are configured, and changing the capital versus scope relationship has the potential to impact product designs. These impacts present companies with choices on how to deploy AM across their businesses.
Companies pursuing AM capabilities choose between divergent paths (figure 1):
Path I: Companies do not seek radical alterations in either supply chains or products, but they may explore AM technologies to improve value delivery for current products within existing supply chains.
Path II: Companies take advantage of scale economics offered by AM as a potential enabler of supply chain transformation for the products they offer.
Path III: Companies take advantage of the scope economics offered by AM technologies to achieve new levels of performance or innovation in the products they offer.
Path IV: Companies alter both supply chains and products in pursuit of new business models.
AM has shortened the design and production process by enabling companies to streamline prototyping activities, alter supply chains, and evolve end-product manufacturing.12 The global 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $4.1 billion in revenue in 2014 to $12.8 billion by 2018, and its worldwide revenue to exceed $21 billion by 2020.13
To be sure, this soaring demand for skilled labor is not exclusive to AM. In fact, the talent shortages facing AM mirror a widely recognized skills gap across the manufacturing industry as a whole.
This projected growth for AM, while positive, also raises a significant challenge: heightened competition for a finite talent pool with the skills to use this technology. This challenge is expected to affect businesses of all sizes, from start-up to enterprise-level.14Indeed, according to some reports, the number of job advertisements calling for 3D printing skills increased 1,834 percent between August 2010 and August 2014, with industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, software developers, and industrial designers among the most sought-after professionals.15
To be sure, this soaring demand for skilled labor is not exclusive to AM. In fact, the talent shortages facing AM mirror a widely recognized skills gap across the manufacturing industry as a whole.16 According to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, 9 out of 10 manufacturers are struggling to find the skilled workers needed, and 54 percent of manufacturers do not have a plan in place to address the skilled labor shortage—impacting production, quality, innovation, and growth.17
The constricted supply of skilled AM labor is the result of several factors, which can be broadly categorized into the three key talent areas: recruitment and hiring, training, and retention.
Developing a skilled bench of engineers and technicians often begins with finding, recruiting, and hiring talent. Even in the best of times, this process can be difficult. Compounding the challenge further is the fact that manufacturers are not only seeking to identify the already-limited pool of engineers and technicians with AM expertise but also to replace the seasoned engineers who are aging out of the workforce. Below are some of the challenges companies face as they look to identify and hire engineers and technicians.
Accelerating retirement of skilled workers. The current manufacturing workforce is aging fast and retiring faster. The median age of the manufacturing workforce rose from 40.5 years in 2000 to 44.9 years in 2013,18 and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers expects that the aging manufacturing workforce and the resulting retirements of older workers will leave a skilled-employee vacuum totaling in the millions in the years ahead.19
Building a strong AM workforce goes beyond simply identifying and hiring talent, however.
Millennials’ negative perception of the manufacturing industry. The challenge of aging talent is just one side of the coin: Just as skilled workers are aging out of the workforce, younger talent is not rising up to take their place. Indeed, Americans still think of factory jobs as “dirty, dangerous, and offering little job security.”20 Declining wages in manufacturing—real wages for manufacturing workers declined 4.4 percent from 2003 to 201321—have further hurt the industry’s image, particularly among Millennials.22 Indeed, Millennials are also motivated by different professional drivers than previous generations, including being empowered to innovate, making an impact both within their company and beyond, feeling control over their career paths, having opportunities to lead, and solving complex, challenging problems;23 in their minds, manufacturing does not address these priorities. American manufacturers could thus face a deficit of as many as 2 million workers over the next decade, fueled as much by a dearth of rising young talent as the looming retirement of the Baby Boomers.24
A lack of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in the manufacturing market. While demand for both those in skilled trade (technicians) and undergraduate/post-graduate skills (engineers) remains high within manufacturing, an influx of those with the requisite skills is closer to a trickle. A study conducted by the Brookings Institute found that manufacturing companies compete for the limited pool of STEM talent with other industries and find it relatively more difficult to fill STEM job vacancies.25 As many as 600,000 technical manufacturing jobs—in roles such as technicians, machinists, and operators—remained unfilled in 2011, with manufacturers expecting to fill fewer than half of the 3.4 million manufacturing jobs in the coming decade due to lack of viable, skilled candidates.26
Yet the problem with finding skilled STEM workers starts even earlier, in school: Retention rates for students in STEM programs are falling, while the number of US students enrolled in engineering graduate programs is also on the decline.27 The gap between demand for STEM talent and supply of skilled engineers is not a small one, either: Estimates suggest that undergraduates with STEM majors would need to increase by 34 percent to meet demand.28 Compounding the problem, those with degrees in engineering often do not gravitate toward manufacturing: Organizations are experiencing difficulties finding candidates with advanced degrees in materials sciences,29 for example, while software and biomedical skills are seeing a surge. This constricted pipeline of technicians and STEM graduates interested in manufacturing can, in turn, lead to stiff competition for limited talent.
Building a strong AM workforce goes beyond simply identifying and hiring talent, however. Indeed, as technologies change and evolve, employees must be trained to stay current and maintain necessary skills. Employee training is a widely accepted and successful approach; 94 percent of manufacturing executives rate internal training as “extremely, very, or moderately important to mitigate[ing] the effects of existing skills shortages for a skilled production workforce” such as technicians, while 68 percent say the same for engineers.30 With AM specifically, training needs may be more complex than other manufacturing methods; in many cases, engineers and technicians must learn AM processes on the job, rather than enter the company with those skills already in hand. Training challenges include:
Shortage of AM-specific training programs. One of the major challenges of recruiting and hiring newly minted engineers is the fact that they will likely need on-the-job training in AM techniques, even with their STEM-focused education. Indeed, many engineering programs at academic institutions offer little in the way of AM-specific education, and thus many graduates may not have the AM skills that companies desire. This is due to several factors: Many instructors in the academic setting may not possess much hands-on experience with AM technologies or express reluctance to teach a technology that is as yet unproven at the industrial level.31 While programs focused on additive manufacturing are growing (including Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson Center for Product Innovation, and the Pennsylvania State University Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition), and public-private partnerships have developed (see the sidebar “In practice: Solving Virginia’s advanced manufacturing workforce gap”), adequate education still remains a challenge.
The Virginia Tobacco region has historically been focused on the tobacco farming, textiles, and furniture manufacturing industries. Today, however, those are quickly being replaced by more modern AM industries (such as aerospace, automotive, and heavy machinery), and employers are experiencing a high demand for skilled workers alongside a shortage of supply.
In response to the shortage of skilled AM workers, the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), a public-private partnership dedicated to research and innovation, in collaboration with the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and nine community colleges, established a network of AM training centers of excellence (CoEs) across the region, including:
The New College Center of Excellence
The Southwest Virginia Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence
The Southern Virginia Center of Manufacturing Excellence
In addition to the CoEs, the CCAM plans to develop an Advanced Manufacturing Apprentice Academy (AMAA) to serve as the hub for the network. This academy, along with the CoEs, will provide hands-on, industry-relevant training on modern AM equipment, professional certifications, and pathways to employment. Led by an industry-designed training curriculum and modeled after an “earn-while-you-learn” apprenticeship, the AMAA will work to grow the workforce pipeline for AM business, close the unemployment gap, and further generate an industry-ready workforce across the Commonwealth.32
AM-specific skills gaps. The rise of AM will likely drive heightened demand for cross-functional technical and managerial competencies. Engineers must learn and implement new design processes and technologies, adapt to new design programs, and gain familiarity with new materials beyond their traditional training and professional experience. Moreover, design engineers will have to work side by side with manufacturing engineers on the factory floor, and both will need to think about fabrication and modeling more imaginatively than they have historically.
For their part, technicians must adapt to new techniques—such as part finishing and machine calibrating—and become expert in the workings of new machines. Additionally, recording, maintaining, and updating 3D data within increasingly complex systems may require the technician to adopt new IT and software skills. Further, increased compression of the design and engineering process may blur the lines between the engineering process and technicians. Continual managerial training is thus necessary: Without intimate knowledge of the competencies and capabilities of their technical workforce, managers may be unable to identify the team’s internal strengths and weaknesses, let alone understand how to close these gaps and improve workforce performance and output.
At the same time, it is important to note that AM is not a singular discipline but encompasses a range of techniques, materials, and machine types. Engineers and technicians may not be trained in the design principles and machinery of AM, but even if they are, expertise in one approach or one printer type does not necessarily extend across the full range of AM processes. Engineers with knowledge of polymer material capabilities, for example, may have little expertise with metals.33 Technicians skilled in operating prototype-level “office machines” may not be certified to operate and maintain “shop floor machines,” which may require special environmental considerations and higher maintenance.34 Thus, manufacturers must adapt their talent search to their own specific AM needs and pursue novel, hands-on approaches to training. (See the sidebar “Immersive learning and advanced manufacturing.”)
Studies have shown that immersive learning enables the learner to understand the different facets of a tool or capability in varying situations, and to apply these learnings in a real-world context.35 Interacting with new technologies through simulated development exercises can accelerate learning and promote creative thinking.36
This approach may be ideal for AM, enabling organizations to provide high-quality training experiences in a low-impact digital environment. John Deere, manufacturer of agricultural and construction equipment, has implemented a range of immersive experiences across its business processes, including virtual painter training, factory workstations, and process design. The company’s virtual reality training for painters accelerated the process, reduced costs, and increased efficiency of instruction.37
Nascent AM culture. While engineering and technical skills can be taught, manufacturers must also focus on shaping their employees’ mind-set. Creating a culture of change and innovation can make managers, engineers, and technicians more willing to adapt to changing technologies and reimagine established processes.38 On the other hand, managers who are reluctant to embrace change and who stick to the status quo may overlook the gains of AM adoption, and they will be unable to create an employee culture that encourages development and growth.39 Without a plan to instill a culture of creativity and change at the management level, capability and skill development may stall.
Finding and training skilled workers is costly and time consuming. Once an engineer or technician has become adept at the technology, manufacturers must take care to keep that talent. In order to do so, they should consider approaches to retention and organizational changes that take into account the ways in which AM alters the design and production process.
Retaining existing engineers and technicians. With the limited pool of available talent, investment in technical training is central to keeping employees’ AM skills current and keeping them engaged and satisfied. As employee skills strengthen, the organization as a whole will also be better positioned to oversee quality suppliers and meet the technical demands of customers.40 Moreover, losing talented workers in the tight AM labor market can be a major issue for businesses, with the cost of replacing an employee estimated to be approximately 150 percent what the employee would earn annually—which, of course, adds to costs and decreases production.41
Moreover, many potential AM employees are likely to be Millennials, who change jobs more frequently and might be less loyal to employers. Fully 44 percent say they expect to leave their current jobs and go elsewhere within the next two years if given the chance to do something new; two-thirds expect to do so by 2020.42 Retaining these employees will require a better understanding of their unique career expectations and priorities to foster greater engagement and retention.43
Outdated organizational structures. Commercial-scale 3D printing tests a manufacturer’s ability to adapt its program management protocols, network of suppliers,44 and collaborate between project teams globally.45 It also changes the design and production process in ways that upend typical manufacturing structures, taking processes from “extended and specialized” to “condensed and collaborative” and forcing engineers to adjust the way they work.46 Organizational charts focused on specialization may need to become more cross-functional. Moreover, companies may have to develop the flexibility to toggle between conventional manufacturing and AM to optimize for design and manufacturability—at times, perhaps even blending the two into a hybrid approach.47
Talent is crucial throughout the AM design and manufacturing process, from design to final-part inspection, from planning to shipping, from machine maintenance on the plant floor to aftermarket support. Beyond the production process, roles focused on identifying, training, and retaining talent and managing the tremendous amounts of data and critical IT infrastructure that go along with a scalable AM operation are also critical to successfully implementing and using AM processes.48Beyond simply examining why these challenges are present, however, managers must have tools and techniques to identify where the most pressing skills gaps exist, as well as tactical approaches to closing them. Thus, workforce planning approaches suited to AM’s rapid development can provide a useful framework for identifying talent needs and addressing them.
While the challenges facing AM workforce development are numerous, manufacturers can use strategic workforce planning approaches to shape a robust AM workforce and build an AM talent pipeline. Strategic workforce planning involves proactively forecasting an organization’s specific talent needs and devising a range of tailored strategies to address them.49 Taking a collaborative, iterative approach to workforce planning may be the methodology best suited to the rapidly evolving and varied technical requirements of AM. This can allow human resources (HR) experts to team with managers, build upon a shared business vision, and quickly identify—and prioritize—critical skills gaps, enabling manufacturers to focus on workforce segments identified as high priority, and helping to ensure that resources and efforts are not wasted.
Taking a collaborative, iterative approach to workforce planning may be the methodology best suited to the rapidly evolving and varied technical requirements of AM.
Taking an iterative design approach to workforce planning with short stages—typically lasting one to four weeks each—can enable developers and managers to communicate often, identify challenges promptly, respond to constantly evolving stakeholder needs, and deliver results in quick cycles. Applying this approach—also known as agile—in AM workforce planning allows HR planners, managers, engineers, and technicians to collaborate more frequently and generate insights concerning the most pressing needs of the organization, rapid analysis, and faster organizational responsiveness to changes (figure 2). Indeed, the term “collaborative” is key: Due to the challenges associated with adopting AM technologies, AM-focused workforce planning relies on a steady stream of input from the engineers and technicians whose roles will be most affected. Whether a manufacturing organization is continuing to build upon existing AM capabilities or just beginning to implement AM, a rapidly iterative, collaborative workforce planning approach can help to address recruitment, training, and retention challenges associated with AM.
The most critical workforce segments—such as machinists or production technologists—demand high levels of skill and deliver a disproportionately high amount of value. Initially, planners may prioritize the critical workforce segments with the highest numbers of vacancies or the roles that are most difficult to fill. As workforce planning processes mature, however, planners can forecast workforce skills and capability requirements in light of observed workforce trends—higher-than-normal attrition in key functions, difficulty in recruiting, or skewed supervisor-to-staff ratios, for example—and changing business priorities. Focusing the process on critical segments narrows the scope of the planning process, allowing for greater speed and more targeted planning.
To identify these critical workforce segments, planners in HR may engage managers who have direct insight into day-to-day operations and knowledge of the lines of business (LOBs) that are in high demand. Given the rapidly evolving technical requirements of AM adoption, this LOB identification and prioritization should recur frequently to more accurately forecast, and identify any changes in, workforce needs.
In addition to collaborating with managers, HR can ideally gather qualitative data from engineers, technicians, and other critical manufacturing segments (see the sidebar “Building partnerships between HR and the business”). Together with the manager-level discussions, these conversations allow HR to gain firsthand insight into talent challenges facing AM adoption and implementation, and potentially identify them earlier than would be possible with a noncollaborative, noninclusive approach. With focus and concentration of effort, planners will have a shortlist of workforce segments, complete with skills required for each.
Once critical AM workforce segments have been identified, it is important to understand the organization’s needs in those areas. Assessing the workforce demand—including staff distribution, experience, and level of expertise—provides AM manufacturers insight into exactly whom they need to hire, and where within the organization they need to do so. To accurately assess demand, HR can work with managers to hone in on specific AM technology needs, products fabricated, productivity targets, forecasted demand shifts, and the competitive landscape—as well as any strategic goals that may signal a shift toward a new AM process or approach.
By identifying these drivers, planners can identify the types of skills their workers will need to develop—and those they may already possess. Indeed, planners can work to identify critical skills that engineers and technicians have already cultivated in house, including process- or equipment-specific techniques or protocols. They can then develop plans for reinforcing and building upon them through training, preserving them through knowledge transfer from experienced workers to new hires, or beginning a training or recruitment/hiring process to develop capabilities where gaps have been identified. By taking this assessment, demand will reflect actual, current AM business requirements and potentially shed light on those that may arise in the future.
Once planners identify the greatest talent needs, it is important to understand whether adequate supply exists within their workforce to fulfill this demand. Diverse and rapidly evolving technical requirements of AM adoption mean that the organization may consider preparing to train, develop, recruit, and reallocate teams of engineers and technicians to keep pace. Critical workforce supply analysis will help HR and managers stay informed of these changes, identify the capabilities of the incumbent workforce, and pinpoint the gaps in supply that may prevent a company from meeting current and future demand.
Workforce supply analysis can begin with an initial audit of headcount, staff distribution, demographic distribution, accession and attrition trends, junior-to-senior staff ratios, experience levels, and retirement eligibility projections of staff in critical workforce segments. Workforce supply analysis allows planners to conduct near- and long-term forecasts using available workforce data; determine future skill requirements of critical roles; identify trends, patterns, and anomalies in workforce composition; and identify workforce risks, such as a retirement spikes among key personnel or atypical attrition within particular workforce segments. To augment this analysis, planners may identify the less tangible attributes of a high-performing workforce through staff surveys. Specifically, a survey of engineers, technicians, and other staff representative of critical workforce segments can help planners gain insight into employee engagement, motivators, and job satisfaction—each of which contributes to performance and productivity. Taken together, qualitative and quantitative workforce supply data analysis, which produces a snapshot of in-house supply of talent, is a critical first step toward a workforce analytics capability.
With the demand and supply assessments in hand, HR can conduct focused planning sessions with managers to quantify the gaps where current in-house talent may not be sufficient, and identify and prioritize within those gaps the most crucial areas for short- and long-term talent investments. Solutions here may range from recruiting and outreach to technical training, leadership development, employee engagement, partnership with academic institutions, and succession planning. Approaches deliberated here can ideally be measurable and traceable, to pinpoint where and when progress is made in closing gaps.
HR planners and managers can consider cost-benefit calculations for each solution over both the short and long term, and prioritize talent investments that will address the most significant operational risks and critical workforce segments. This can ultimately feed the workforce plan, which identifies actions for addressing specific gaps, the steps associated with each, a timeline for execution, and metrics for tracking success.
Launching the workforce plan—and measuring its outcomes—requires an integrated effort between HR and managers across the AM organization. The collaboration enables rapid feedback, a discussion of results for each initiative underway, and an analysis of results that will inform the next iteration.
Depending on the talent solutions and their impact on the workforce, planners may design a communications plan to inform, prepare, and lead the organization through changes in staff structure, training, and allocation for incumbent staff to internalize and accept. Additionally, as AM capability requirements change quickly, preparing for the next planning iteration may be part of the conversation; while this marks the end of a planning cycle, it also marks the beginning of the next iteration.
Planning for the right AM workforce requires a close working relationship between HR experts and managers, engineers, and technicians. This enables HR to gain an understanding of the business environment and critical workforce segments from those in the field—where they may often have no direct, first-hand knowledge—so they can create effective workforce solutions that address the right challenges. The collaborative nature of the partnership also allows the workforce planning process to respond more quickly to changing needs—and also, perhaps most importantly, foster greater buy-in of AM adoption, as more segments are invested in the process.
For manufacturers looking to recruit, train, retain, and deploy an AM workforce, forecasting the optimal mix and allocation of engineering and technical skills helps to reduce risk and ensure resources are invested appropriately.50 And the sooner the better: Early and consistent collaboration has been shown to ensure that the workforce plan focuses on the correct areas.51
The resulting action plan should map back to and address the organization’s AM-related challenges, needs, and gaps identified during the planning process.
A collaborative and iterative approach to workforce planning can enable an organization to develop and implement a tailored approach to building AM-related talent—one with clear priorities related to talent recruitment, retraining already-existing talent, and retaining AM-trained employees. Indeed, by collaborating with engineers, technicians, and managers, an organization can develop a fuller picture of its own needs and the challenges it may encounter as it seeks to develop its AM capabilities. The resulting action plan should map back to and address the organization’s AM-related challenges, needs, and gaps identified during the planning process. Depending on a company’s identified needs, actions can include:
Workforce planning helps AM organizations determine when, where, and why to invest in a spectrum of talent management initiatives, including recruiting, training, and retention initiatives targeted toward addressing the challenges specific to AM.
Workforce planning helps AM organizations determine when, where, and why to invest in a spectrum of talent management initiatives, including recruiting, training, and retention initiatives targeted toward addressing the challenges specific to AM. By taking an honest and clear inventory of their specific needs, comparing this inventory against the available supply of talent within the workforce, and understanding the cultural challenges at play impacting the talent pipeline for AM, organizations can identify ways to address any gaps. By encouraging a collaborative partnership between HR, managers, engineers, and technicians, an organization can develop a clearer picture of real-world needs and plan actions accordingly. In this way, manufacturers can identify specific plans for action as they seek to bridge the AM skills gap and scale AM within their organizations.
Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Supply Chain and Manufacturing Operations practice helps companies understand and address opportunities to apply advanced manufacturing technologies to impact their businesses’ performance, innovation, and growth. Our insights into additive manufacturing allow us to help organizations reassess their people, process, technology, and innovation strategies in light of this emerging set of technologies. Contact the authors for more information, or read more about our alliance with 3D Systems and our 3D Printing Discovery Center on www.deloitte.com.