UpFront: Dirigbles and Reality
By Brian J. Hogan
The companies that are going to survive this recession—the second to hit us in the last decade—have learned certain lessons. Among them is the principle that survival, and success, require thoughtful innovation.
Intuitively, one might expect the great manufacturing equipment companies to be pulling back, limiting investment in new products, and trying to generate cash flow by selling equipment that has been accepted in the marketplace. That does not seem to be what's going on.
Visits to machine-tool companies of every stripe indicate that all of the top companies have decided to fight for market share by developing new machines. New controllers are being designed using multicore technology, and new manufacturing software is being written to take full advantage of this productivity-enhancing work. Really, innovation is boiling along in every area of manufacturing.
Further, companies everywhere are trying to adopt lean approaches to production. They may not describe what's happening on the floor as lean manufacturing, but that's the inspiration: match production to orders, reduce WIP, limit inventory, standardize work—all this is becoming the way we function, and it's all good.
What's the point? Just this: manufacturing in North America isn't going away. If human intelligence and skills can fix the problems faced by manufacturing, those problems will be dealt with effectively.
It's true, of course, that not all manufacturing's difficulties are internal issues. Clearly, the storms that have recently swept through the economy originated outside manufacturing. To quell those storms, at some point someone must stand up in the public square and defend reality. It is startling how difficult that task seems to be.
As an example of what I mean, let me look back about 30 years to an engineering group that wanted to build dirigibles. Big dirigibles. In planform, their proposed lighter-than-air vehicle would have been an ellipse about 800' long and 700' wide. It would have had a huge lifting capacity.They believed the vehicle would be able to greatly shorten the time required to bring products like lettuce from California to the East Coast of the US. Given that I'm a fan of anything that flies, my reaction was: "Build that sucker!" Reality checks followed, however. Skeptics demonstrated that the dirigible wasn't practical, and the project went into the circular file.
Which brings me to today's political debates.
Without being horribly offensive and partisan, may I suggest that we need to live and work in the real world? The sectors of our economy that produce wealth (such as manufacturing) need encouragement; they are not milch cows to be drained to meet political needs. We truly need to avoid building dirigibles, no matter how attractive the visions they inspire.
This article was first published in the November 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.