Made in the USA: The United States’ Opportunity for Modernization

Jeff Tao
Jeff Tao
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This article was originally published in Forbes.

As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, known as Industry 4.0, digital transformation and bringing U.S. manufacturing back home are top of mind. Biden recently passed the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, followed by nearly $52.7 billion in additional funding for manufacturing and science in the United States. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, “U.S. companies account for 48% of the world’s chip sales, but U.S.-located fabs only account for 12% of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing, down from 37% in 1990.” The association also found that 75% of chip manufacturing was concentrated in countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China.

In the last year, U.S. companies like General Motors and Intel have committed to doubling down on domestic manufacturing efforts. The CHIPS Act is a crucial milestone in the renaissance of manufacturing in the United States, allowing the country to propel momentum and reiterate its strength in innovating industries. But are we ready for it?

Modernizing Legacy Manufacturing

Modernizing legacy manufacturing has been a priority for most traditional industries. A good example is pharmaceutical manufacturing. In the U.S., drugmakers have used innovation and cutting-edge techniques to discover medicines that cure and treat diseases. However, they have generally manufactured these medicines using techniques that have not changed much over decades. The global Covid-19 pandemic accelerated pharma’s digital transformation, pushing for the most advanced clinical trials to date. Still, the industry cannot wait for a crisis to scramble for modernization.

As drug research and development continue to advance, manufacturing needs to keep the pace of innovation and address underlying causes of product recalls and shortages. Technology like 3D printing, continuous manufacturing (CM), SCADA systems and AI and ML could help transform the industry’s manufacturing process, but legacy platforms and heavy regulation are slowing them down.

Democratize The Developer With Open Source

The unfortunate state of the manufacturing industry is that many leading players still use traditional data historians developed decades ago and running on Windows. At the same time, the high-tech world has long moved on. The specialized personnel trained to use these systems are preparing to retire, and the new generation is interested in more modern technology. These data historians are closed systems and were never designed to be open; this prevents the introduction of new technologies (machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data and so on) into the workflow. In addition, the high price of such systems stifles the efforts of smaller companies, and the enterprises that use them cannot easily migrate to other solutions due to vendor lock-in.

Manufacturing must look to open source for innovation. Ninety percent of Chinese companies, critical leaders in manufacturing, already use open-source software. By using an open-source, cloud-native time series database, it’s easier to integrate with a wide variety of modern analytics and visualization tools, and manufacturing can have more choices. Red Hat also found that 82% of IT leaders are more likely to select a vendor that contributes to the open-source community. I believe this is because legacy code is holding innovation back.

I want to start by saying that legacy code is not bad. The word “legacy” tells us that this code worked; it’s what the industry was built on. However, more and more companies are embracing open source for their business benefits. Not only is open source more cost-effective, but instead of keeping the code or solution to themselves, developers can collaborate, take what they need or openly manipulate code to suit them. Open source is agile, often embracing cloud and multi-cloud. Manufacturing and automation companies need software to keep up with the vast data and constantly changing technology, so they should turn to open source. It’s also allowing developers to have vendor neutrality, not being boxed in by more prominent companies.

Migrating Into The Cloud

If the CHIPS Act means that our semiconductor manufacturing is coming back, what can we do to prepare? We need to invest in the cloud.

Some may claim that open-source software is unsuitable for manufacturing or other non-tech-focused industries because of the technical knowledge required to operate and maintain many open-source solutions. Manufacturers with this mindset (and others) can find their answers in the cloud. Cloud services are fully managed, eliminating effort on manufacturers’ part to maintain the often complex systems behind them.

Furthermore, cloud services enable startups and smaller operations to avoid the complicated licensing process and negotiations that current industry vendors demand and use pay-as-you-go models to get started without making significant cash investments upfront.

To get started quickly, you can replicate data from the legacy system to cloud-first so that it won’t impact the current operation. Then step by step, you can phase out the legacy system. Most cloud services even offer a free plan and data replication tool from a legacy system, so it’s cost-effective to build a prototype or proof of concepts. This shortens the time to market significantly.

A great way to improve manufacturing through modernization is by focusing on data-driven manufacturing. You can implement various modern AI or analytics tools with an open system to help propel you forward. Being data-driven can reduce consumption, monitor equipment condition and increase productivity.

Modern cloud systems make industry data more open than ever before—enabling data sharing inside an organization or even with partners outside an organization with only a few clicks. I am confident that it is only through such openness that manufacturers, both large and small, will be able to innovate and compete in the world market.

Just The Beginning

My mission is to help rebuild the technology of traditional industries like utility, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, etc. We have seen that most of these systems are too old to keep up with the digital transformation and demand, and global giants monopolize innovation. From my experience in writing code and open-sourcing my company, the power of developers transcends global boundaries, especially when it comes to open source.

  • Jeff Tao
    Jeff Tao

    With over three decades of hands-on experience in software development, Jeff has had the privilege of spearheading numerous ventures and initiatives in the tech realm. His passion for open source, technology, and innovation has been the driving force behind his journey.

    As one of the core developers of TDengine, he is deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of time series data platforms. His mission is crystal clear: to architect a high performance, scalable solution in this space and make it accessible, valuable and affordable for everyone, from individual developers and startups to industry giants.