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Business LibreTexts Trends in Production and Operations Management

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    What trends will impact U.S. production and operations management both now and in the future? Manufacturing employment has added one million manufacturing factory jobs since the end of the great recession, up to a level of 12.5 million in December 2017. U.S. exports have quadrupled over the past 25 years, and the integration of technology into manufacturing processes has made U.S. manufacturers more competitive. These statistics portray a U.S. economy that is steaming ahead.10

    Yet rapid changes in technology and intense global competition—particularly from Asia—create anxiety about the future. Is technology replacing too many jobs? Or, with qualified workers predicted to be in short supply, is the increased reliance on technology imperative to the United States’ ability to compete in a global marketplace? Will the United States lose its edge in the ongoing war for leadership in innovation? And what should it be doing to ensure that today’s students are tomorrow’s innovators and scientists?

    Recent surveys show finding qualified workers continues to be a major concern facing U.S. industry today. If the United States is to maintain its competitive edge, more investment—both private and federal—is needed for science and research. And what about the crucial role of technology? These are some of the trends facing companies today that we will examine.

    U.S. workers no longer compete simply against one another but also against workers in less-developed countries with lower wages and increasing access to modern technology and production techniques. This is particularly true for manufacturers who account for the bulk of U.S. exports and compete directly with most imports. A more integrated global economy with more import competition and more export opportunities offers both new challenges and new opportunities to the United States and its workforce. To maintain its position as the world’s leading innovator, it is essential that the United States remain committed to innovation and the concerted development of a more highly educated and skilled workforce.

    Looming Workforce Crisis Threatens U.S. Competitiveness

    According to the latest National Association of Manufacturers Skills Gap Report, manufacturing executives rank a “high-performing workforce” as the most important factor in their firms’ future success. This finding concurs with a recent study by the U.S. Department of Labor, which concluded that 85 percent of future jobs in the United States will require advanced training, an associate degree, or a four-year college degree. Minimum skills will be adequate for only 15 percent of future jobs.

    But the National Association of Manufacturers predicts that 3.5 million new jobs will be filled over the next decade, but two million jobs will go unfilled due to a skills gap. When asked to identify the most serious problem for their company, survey respondents ranked “finding qualified employees” above high energy costs and the burdens of taxes, federal regulations, and litigation. Only the cost of health insurance and import competition ranked as more pressing concerns.

    As demand for better-educated and more highly skilled workers begins to grow, troubling trends project a severe shortage of such workers. U.S. employers already struggling to find qualified workers will face an increasing shortage of such workers in coming years. To make matters worse, trends in U.S. secondary education suggest that even those future workers who stay in school to study math and science may not receive globally competitive educations.11

    American Innovation Leadership at Risk

    A recently released report shows the United States is in danger of losing its global lead in science and innovation for the first time since World War II. The report was prepared by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a coalition of leaders from industry, science, and higher education. Although the United States is still out front of the world’s innovation curve, competing countries are climbing the technology ladder quickly, and the only way the United States can continue to create high-wage, value-added jobs is to climb the innovation ladder faster than the rest of the world.

    The task force identified dwindling federal investment in science and research as a root cause of the problem. Federal research as a share of GDP has declined 40 percent over the past 40 years.12 The U.S. share of worldwide high-tech exports has been in a 10-year decline since 2008, after a dramatic rise from $77 billion in 1990 to $221 billion in 2008. The latest data has the U.S. high-tech exports at $153 billion. Similarly, graduate science and engineering enrollment is declining in the United States while on the rise in China, India, and elsewhere. In addition, retirements from science and engineering jobs here at home could lead to a critical shortage of U.S. talent in these fields in the near future.13

    So what needs to be done to reverse this alarming trend? More robust investment is part of the solution because federally funded, peer-reviewed, and patented scientific advances are essential to innovation. Such basic research helped bring us lasers, the World Wide Web, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and fiber optics. National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons noted that, “Modern manufacturing offers high-paying, long-term careers. It’s a high-tech, sleek industry. It’s time to close the skills gap and develop the next generation of the manufacturing workforce.”14

    Business Process Management (BPM)—The Next Big Thing?

    The twenty-first century is the age of the scattered corporation. With an assortment of partners and an army of suppliers often spread across thousands of miles, many companies find themselves with global design, supply, and logistics chains stretched to the breaking point. Few firms these days can afford to go it alone with their own raw materials, in-house production processes, and exclusive distribution systems.15

    Business Process Management is the glue to bind it all together,” says Eric Austvold, research director at AMR Research. “It provides a unified system for business.” This technology has the power to integrate and optimize a company’s sprawling functions by automating much of what it does. The results speak for themselves. BPM has saved U.S. firms $117 billion a year on inventory costs alone. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin recently used a BPM system to resolve differences among the hundreds of businesses that it acquired, unifying them into a whole and saving $50 million per year by making better use of existing resources and data.

    BPM is the key to the success of such corporate high-flyers as Walmart and Dell, which collect, digest, and utilize all sorts of production, sales, and shipping data to continually hone their operations. So how does BPM actually work? When a Dell system is ordered online, rather than waiting for a person to get the ball rolling, a flurry of electronic traffic flows back and forth between suppliers so that every part arrives within a few hours and the computer’s assembly, as well as software loading and testing, are scheduled. Production runs like a well-oiled clock so customers get their computers quickly, and Dell can bill them on shipment. A well-thought-through BPM system can even reschedule production runs, reroute deliveries, or shift work to alternate plants. The key, says Byron Canady of Dell, is “to stay close to customers and the supply chain.”16

    The amount of available data—business intelligence (BI), enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and other systems—is staggering. “Companies are flooded with information,” says Jeanne Baker, chair of the industry support group Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI) and vice president of technology at Sterling Commerce. “The challenge is to make sense of it all. How you leverage the value chain is the true competitive advantage of the 21st century.” According to Baker, “BPMI drives growth through the automation of business processes, particularly the processes that integrate organizations. These provide the best opportunities for growth. Studies have shown companies that have good collaborative processes experience 15 percent less inventory; 17 percent stronger order fulfillment; 35 percent shorter cash-to-cash cycles; 10 percent less stock outs; 7 to 8 percent increase in revenues from savings; and overall sales increases.”17


    1. Describe the impact of the anticipated worker shortage on U.S. business.
    2. How are today’s educational trends affecting the future of manufacturing?
    3. What is business process management (BPM), and how do businesses use it to improve operations management?

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