Participants in an advanced industries regional workshop held in Silicon Valley called the Metro Program have concluded that digitalisation is now so ubiquitous that it all but defines their sector in the US.

The group, which is made up of industry executives, entrepreneurs, investors, scholars and economic development officials, found that most of the IT technologies that are revolutionising manufacturing and advanced industries today reflect US competencies. These range from increasingly powerful visualisation software, computer-assisted design, 3D printing and rapid prototyping tools to key forms of automation and machine learning to the cloud, the internet of things and data analytics. Software underlies all these technologies and eight of the largest 10 global software companies are American.

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A suite of tools and support mechanisms are increasingly in place to foster hardware start-ups in much the same way as was the case for software firms. These include a reduction in hardware start-up costs because of the use of cloud-based digital tools and ‘maker spaces’, increased funding by venture capital (VC) firms, facilitated connections between would-be manufacturers and contract factories to produce sizeable production runs and small start-ups converging with larger-scale advanced manufacturing to track new technology development.   

But with these opportunities come challenges. VCs are still very much on the sidelines of hardware investment and there’s a limited supply of middle-skill technical workers – including ones with a talent for design and in particular coding.

In conclusion, the workshop, which is a partnership with the city of Fremont, California maintained that states and localities have key roles to play if US metropolitan areas are going to benefit financially from the digitalisation of manufacturing. They need to develop training and apprenticeship initiatives to encourage public/private partnerships rather than public systems that simply require support. They also recommend that regional maker communities and industry networks link up more, and that urban innovation districts are reshaped. The group stressed that both Silicon Valley and other regions can benefit if their advanced industry communities become meeting points of software and hardware competency.