UpFront: Seeing the Elephant
By Brian J. Hogan
Remember the story about the three blind men and the elephant? The one who grabbed its tail said the animal was like a rope, the one who walked up to its side described it as like a wall, the one who took hold of its trunk said it was like a snake.
Which leads me to ask: How would you describe the state of manufacturing in North America?
Manufacturing Engineering is published in Michigan, and some people have described what's going on here as a single-state recession. Beyond our borders, unemployment is currently around 4.5%, and there's a real shortage of qualified workers in many areas.
Even in Michigan there are regions where manufacturing is doing well, although in the Detroit area the challenges facing the Big Three have spread havoc throughout their supply base. In western Michigan, around Grand Rapids, the manufacturing base is less dependent upon automotive, and folks are busy.
Manufacturing productivity and total output are growing in North America, and technical innovation in manufacturing is alive and kicking. Every trade show, and every visit to a company that supplies manufacturing firms, reveals new equipment, new capabilities—genuinely exciting stuff.
To this observer, it seems as though North American manufacturing is doing pretty well. But the recent recession, and the negative press coverage that accompanied it, combined to convince many that manufacturing is finished. Quite a few people haven't examined their assumptions, or the press coverage, very closely. During the recession, for example, a Chicago cabbie gave me quite a lecture to the effect that everything we use in the US was now made in China. But the guy was driving a Chevy—a new one. What to say?
And here we are in March, with WESTEC 2007 scheduled to begin in Los Angeles on the 26th. Attend the show and you can expect crowded aisles, excellent technical presentations, and innovations that can improve productivity at your organization.There will be neat stuff as far as you can see. Yet outside the hall, if you ask the average Los Angeleno about the future of manufacturing, more likely than not you'll hear a song of despair. What a contrast! The gap between the reality of generally strong manufacturing industries and the image of fast-spreading desolation is growing. This situation is probably quite dangerous. Surely every society needs a reasonably accurate understanding of what's actually going on. Without such information, isn't public policy on manufacturing simply a shot in the dark?
If you're going to WESTEC, drop by the booth and say hello. We'd enjoy talking about your work, and hearing your views on how manufacturing is doing in North America.
This article was first published in the March 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.