This article excerpt, by John Mills, originally appeared here: http://bit.ly/1lQjly1
 
While both the U.S. and Canada enjoyed manufacturing growth in March, Canadian input costs rose to their highest levels in nearly three years due to a weaker currency.
 
Smaller U.S. factories are taking a cautious approach in response to the uncertainty. Only 36 percent of those polled in the second annual Sage Manufacturing Survey said they expect the economy to improve over the next six months. That’s up from 27 percent last year at this time, but still a dour result overall.
 
The good news? Factory managers aren’t sitting idle. According to the Sage survey, 46 percent of those polled are investing resources to support top priorities. In fact, 53 percent are aiming to boost sales while 36 percent are focused on developing markets and improving productivity. Here are five trends to keep in mind:
 
1. Increased reliance on automation and robots. Technology improves with every generation, of course, but the newest promises vastly more automation for concentrating human effort on details and customization. 
 
2. Reshoring. Growth in the North American sector is largely due to work that had been domiciled in China and other parts of Asia “coming home.” That’s good news, certainly. Consider making investments that allow you to tackle projects in chunks, scaling to meet demand on a conservative pace that doesn’t put the entire business at risk.
 
3. Rapid prototyping. Similarly, new technology such as 3D printing has changed how easy it can be for a would-be innovator to design a prototype needed to attract outside investment. Cater to this group by setting up a small 3D printing practice and create performance incentives. 
 
4. Smaller orders. Prototyping isn’t the only instance where orders are getting smaller. In fact, there’s at least anecdotal evidence that China’s insistence on high minimum orders pushed some to return to North American factories. Consider investing in tools that allow for efficient production at any scale.
 
5. Leaner factories. Automation can certainly help, but there also comes a point when human creativity is required to do a manufacturing job well. Consider offering workers flexible scheduling for maximizing hours at the busiest times on the factory floor.
 
And in everything, consider the human element first. Are you investing to improve outcomes? The times may be changing, but some business practices remain timeless.