Viewpoints: It's Not Too Late for US Manufacturing
Thoughts of another hectic day in the world of automotive parts manufacturing cross the operator's mind as his CNC machine spits out a seemingly endless stream of transmission parts. Milling, turning, and grinding are all being done in his lean manufacturing cell. Some time ago, major automotive manufacturers accelerated their outsourcing of parts manufacturing to a multitiered supply chain. Since then his plant has been working three shifts, seven days a week, just to keep up with demand.
But this was no time to complain about the work. Yes, the stress was high and the partquality requirements demanding. But, offsetting these challenges were improved pay and benefits. Plus, the owner hinted that pay and benefits could get even better if the company grew and prospered.The operator and his teammates drew further motivation from the number of young manufacturing engineers being hired, the company's increased investment in new CNC machines with the latest technology, and the ballooning number of multinational customers visiting the plant.
The operator's euphoria was abruptly interrupted, however, by the manufacturing manager's terse reminder that competition was becoming more global. The manager repeated his frequent warning that many companies "outside the country" were more than willing to make the same parts at lower cost, and with equal or better quality.The operator shuddered at the thought. He was getting up there in age, but still had a lot of working years in front of him. He didn't want to lose his manufacturing job, as he heard had happened so often and swiftly "over there" in a foreign country called—America.
At that same moment, thousands of miles away, a machine operator at an auto plant in the American Midwest could have punched out for the last time. His job had just come very close to being outsourced to another company "somewhere overseas." A lot of "what-ifs" filled his mind as he slowly walked away from the company that had been his life for so many productive years. Fortunately, the operator's company had ensured a continued need for his well-honed manufacturing skills.
He couldn't help but think: What if his company had not invested in new technology, and had continued to use those old manual machines, which were no longer capable of producing highquality, cost-competitive parts? What if the company's owner had not realized that his workforce was aging, and he needed a plan to replace them with a next-generation of true machinists? What if companies like his, trade organizations, and even the big shots in Washington DC, had taken steps to strengthen and promote manufacturing in America? What if "big business," whoever they are, focused on the long-term future of manufacturing in the US and in his city, instead of fretting only about the short-term bottom line, and doing the ole' knee-jerk reaction of jumping on the outsourcing bandwagon when business becomes even a little-bit challenging? So many "what-ifs." Ultimately, they could have cascaded into the loss of a manufacturing job in America.
And we continue to play this game of "manufacturing musical chairs" throughout the world. Frighteningly, the pace of change is accelerating and America's manufacturing future could be in serious, undeniable jeopardy.
Fortunately there are a number of manufacturing companies, industry associations, trade organizations, and serious publications who really "get it," and are taking aggressive steps to shake the foundation of American manufacturing. They are creating programs to attract young people to manufacturing as a succession plan for our aging workforce. They are developing and implementing new manufacturing training programs. They are lobbying Congress for more attention to our manufacturing plight. They are bringing logic and reason to strong arguments against unbridled outsourcing. Our company admires their individual and collective efforts, and is strongly supporting them in many different ways beyond just providing American-based manufacturers with highly productive grinding machines.
As a reader of this well-respected publication, I can only assume that you are engaged in American manufacturing activities and programs directly or indirectly. I encourage you to get involved in any way you can to promote and support manufacturing in America. Complacency is definitely not an option. We're already trekking down that path, and our nation's manufacturing lifeblood is draining away. It's not too late to stop the flow and reverse the current trend. Not too late, unless we have all become satisfied with being fans instead of players in the intensely competitive global manufacturing game.
So, what's it going to be?
This article was first published in the June 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.