UpFront: About the Car Biz
By Brian J. Hogan
What a year! Who would have believed last September that in 12 months General Motors and Chrysler would be owned by the government (and the UAW).
No matter how this situation plays out, let's not forget the overwhelming importance of the automotive industry to North American manufacturing. There seems to be a school of thought in the nontech media that looks upon automotive as simply a juicy source of jobs. It's much more than that.
In fact, when pundits talk about jobs, it's not all clear what they have in mind. A barista at a coffee shop has a job, and so does a manufacturing engineer in an automotive plant.The value added in these two positions is, however, quite different, and it does not seem to this observer that the difference is understood by the folks who drive our national dialog.
The automotive industry supports and inspires research in materials science, every manufacturing technology, and all other technologies related—so to speak—to the improvement of the breed. It also leads people into trades and professions important to the industry. Technicians, machinists, engineers, and managers all find rewarding, creative employment in this field.
And the supply chain—or, rather, the supporting phalanx of companies and industries—extends from mines and oilfields through steel mills, refineries, and every type of processing plant imaginable into the tiers, and finally to the OEMs. Look at the design side of all these firms and industries, as well as the production arena, and it's clear that automotive is an immense well of technical enterprise and expertise.
Automotive manufacturing is not simply a candy box that contains a bunch of chocolate-coated jobs. It's a vast, interlinked system of organizations and people. That system provides a market for raw and finished materials and products, and work for skilled, creative individuals. It creates significant economic activity in Arizona copper mines, Nigerian oilfields, and research laboratories, and offers young people a choice of careers ranging from the shop floor to the executive office.
For the last two hundred years, one characteristic of the nations that make up Western civilization has been this field we call manufacturing. From ancient times, all nations have had craftsmen. But modern manufacturing—serial production of goods at modest cost—originated in the West, and remains one of its defining characteristics. And automotive manufacturing is surely one of the most significant, if not the most significant, of all manufacturing industries. This field of endeavor is terribly important. To regard it simply as a job-generation system is blind and foolish. It must be defended and strengthened—not to fill the pockets of plutocrats, and not to win votes for politicians, but because of its foundational importance to our way of life.
This article was first published in the September 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.