By Brian J. Hogan
Try to find the time to check out the technical changes happening in manufacturing these days. Descriptions of new machine tools, new cutting tools, improved robots, improved shop-floor equipment of every type, are flowing into this office every day.
It's very likely that improved economic conditions have freed up investment money, and new products are being pulled onto the market by users who need to solve manufacturing problems. Whatever the reason for the innovations we're seeing, by all means let's have more!
These are great days for people who can bring the new equipment to their production floor. In fact, if you look at the total suite of new technologies—machines, materials, controls, software, inspection and measurement, etc.—plus lean manufacturing, and even new approaches to accounting, it seems as though something very significant is rolling out in front of us.
No company can implement all this new stuff in its operations immediately. Manufacturing is capitalintensive, and expenditure must conform to reasonable limits. However, investment in new approaches to manufacturing offers the possibility of creating a new kind of manufacturing company. We are approaching a time when productivity per worker can be driven to levels we've never seen before.
I'm not saying that manufacturing employment is going to go leaping upward, but I believe that the technological potential now exists to significantly increase output, while retaining the workforce we presently see in the US.
Naturally, technological potential guarantees nothing. In the end, managers must believe that manufacturing in a developed country like the US makes sense. Is direct labor the killer?
During a trip to Japan, I once heard someone ask a Japanese executive if his company planned to move production to China to take advantage of cheap labor. He responded that factory labor made up 10% of the cost of his products. If he moved to China, that cost would decrease, but it would never go to zero, and shipping and administration costs would increase. Further, his Japanese labor force is stable, skilled, and committed to his company. So while he might build in China for the local market, he did not see cheap direct labor as a reason to move production out of Japan to China. Interesting viewpoint.
It seems to me that the application of new ideas can change the way manufacturing is done in developed countries. Of course, the change may not be as great as that envisioned by Richard Morley (father of the PLC) in his "Viewpoints" article, Manufacturing Engineering, April 2007, p. 144. (Morley sees companies eventually becoming much like giant robots.) But look around and you'll see that something is coming, and it's coming on strong.
This article was first published in the June 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.