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Viewpoints: What Must Be Done?

K. Subramanian
Everyone has an opinion about what we in US manufacturing need to do next. But none of these opinions really matter unless they are transformed into policies and plans. So, here are a set of opinions and ideas, offered in the hope that some of them will find their way up the chain to the decision makers.

What's happening in the real world? Try globalization, NAFTA, outsourcing, offshoring, and the subprime mortgage crisis. College tuitions are escalating; it seems as though you need a four-year college degree to get any job with a decent salary. Is anything good going on out there?

Worldwide we are grinding, cutting, forging, casting, welding, etc. more than we ever did. We are also using more steel and aluminum to manufacture more engines, automobiles and all other industrial parts than ever before. There is an increasing demand for everything we can manufacture, leading to higher prices or shortages of raw materials of every kind. But the middle class in America doesn't seem to be gaining much from all this. Why?

The industrial society has succeeded largely by emphasizing tasks and their flawless execution. Success through manufacturing is one of the excellent examples of that approach. In other words, there is someone, somewhere, who thinks through what has to be done, and most of the rest of us do what we are asked to do—namely execute the tasks required to accomplish the goal.

If you think seriously, except for physical labor and creative thinking, everything else we do involves tasks related to information. With today's technology, we can collect, process, analyze, and communicate all information-related tasks, and automate them. With this new capability, anyone who thinks through and figures out what needs to be done can get what they want done by using people, materials, and resources from any corner of the world. He/she can also make their outputs available to anyone who has a need anywhere in the world. Digital Technology has enabled this changing world. Digital Technology is a friend to those with the skills required to integrate solutions and find ways to implement them (Solution-Oriented). Digital Technology is the economic foe of those who simply do what they are asked to do (Task-Oriented). The simultaneous presence of both the Solution-Oriented opportunities and Task-Oriented assignments results in a "bimodal" world. The Solution-Oriented population receives a high reward, while the Task-Oriented population receives minimal pay in this bimodal world.

By using Digital Technology together with Task-Oriented jobs and functions, all our known solutions can be readily replicated using labor that will accept pay that can sustain only the lowest standard of living. Because there are plenty of people worldwide with low standards of living, this makes the pay for all such jobs and functions relatively low. Hence such jobs are far less valuable for the middle class in the developed, industrialized world where the standards of living are the highest. Investors can continue to benefit from the known solutions by simply replicating them or executing the same old tasks in a desired location to maximize economic return.

There is a real need to create and produce "New Things." There is also room for "New Ways" to make "Old Things." If these solutions are new and not available elsewhere, the resulting rewards are also high. Individuals and companies that produce such items and outputs will be highly rewarded as members of the Solution-Oriented population of the bimodal world.

But, the successes of a few individuals or companies do not significantly contribute to the collective success of a nation or its middle class. Collective success requires a broadly accepted change from the Task-Orientation mindset (doing whatever you are asked to do) to a System and Solution-Oriented mindset (figuring out what needs to be done and why, and then making it happen). This change in mindset is needed in our politicians, educators, managers and more importantly in the thought processes of professionals in every discipline. When we combine this change in emphasis with a "can-do" attitude, and utilize the capabilities of Digital Technology in conjunction with the investment resources available in the industrialized nations, we have a recipe for success for the middle class.

The champion of change for the middle class is the organization that sees this opportunity and can implement a Solution-Oriented process through meaningful programs and initiatives. This is the kind of change that benefits everyone.


This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 11/1/2008

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