thumbnail group

Connect With Us:

ME Channels / SME Speaks

SME Speaks: Bridging the Workforce Gap

Mark C. Tomlinson          

By Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP
Executive Director and General Manager


We are in turbulent times. Many traditional jobs in manufacturing are disappearing. The decreasing need for repetitive-assembly and lower-skilled manufacturing positions is talked about on a daily basis by the pundits as a portent of the decline and eventual disappearance of the manufacturing sector in the US. I personally believe they are wrong.

The manufacturing sector is in a transitional state, where traditional industrial sectors of manufacturing in decline (automotive) are being offset by new (alternative energy) and necessary (medical device) industries. All of these sectors are looking for manufacturing practitioners who have a higher level of skill than the traditional repetitive-assembly worker.

Having a high school or university degree is no longer enough: additional training is required in specific areas associated with the manufacturing process. As mentioned above, manufacturing is not just shop-floor activities; it starts with product creation and ends with the distribution supply chain. The skills necessary to innovate, improve, and expedite products to market and be agile in the manufacturing cycle will be critically important.

So how is the Society supporting the needs of the current and future manufacturing practitioner? SME is involved on many fronts, some of which include:


Lean-to-Green Manufacturing

One of the keys to future success in the manufacturing sector will be linked to how well companies and their employees improve their processes and conserve their use of energy. This will require skills associated with lean thinking along with sustainable manufacturing techniques. For several years, SME has partnered with the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) and The Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence to provide certifications that allow both the company and its employees to understand what is required to be fully versed in the use of lean tools that improve productivity and eliminate waste. SME is also working with Purdue University to develop outcome assessments that support the use of processes and techniques to support the sustainable manufacturing process.


Certification Expansion

SME has partnered with NAM's (National Association of Manufacturers) Manufacturing Institute to develop a Manufacturing Skills Certification System, which outlines the skill progression required for manufacturing and its workforce. The system includes stackable, portable credentials with real value in the workplace. The initial partnership includes the ACT careers readiness certificate, Manufacturing Skill Council certificates, National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certificates, American Welding Society (AWS), and SME's well-respected certifications. This system will provide the employee and the employer with the progression of skills required to be successful in the manufacturing workplace.


SME Webinar Series

Through its Technical Community Network and extensive training program, SME is providing technical information in the form of webinars. SME webinars allow individuals or groups to continually be updated on the latest technologies without having to leave their homes and offices. There are more than 100 planned for 2009 on a variety of subjects, including CNC machining, lean and green sustainability, concurrent engineering, plastics tooling, composites, rapid prototyping, and much more. Check out the schedule at



Being cost effective is only part of the solution for being competitive in manufacturing. Creating new products and services must also be part of the process. Understanding how innovation works and how it can be used is often misunderstood. SME has partnered with the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program and Eureka! Ranch to introduce a new initiative called the USA National Innovation Marketplace. This program is designed to accelerate communications and connections between innovators and buyers, investors, distributors, and manufacturers. Using Web-based tools, people with needs can be connected to people with solutions who can assist companies transitioning away from traditional manufacturing sectors.

These are just a few of the initiatives SME is engaged in to support the needs of the transitional workforce. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers is your tool for manufacturing knowledge, and I encourage all of you to utilize your SME membership in these times of tremendous change. Together, we can weather these turbulent times and strive to keep manufacturing and its workforce a major driver for economic recovery.


2009 Innovation: Personal Fabrication


By Evan Malone
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Additive manufacturing (AM) is the term selected by ASTM International Committee F42 to encompass the class of technologies referred to by many names, such as 3-D printing, additive fabrication, solid freeform fabrication, and rapid prototyping. The value of AM is now well recognized in technical circles, and the number of systems in use has grown steadily. Meanwhile, the range of applications has expanded as system prices have fallen.

As early as 1994, Fritz Prinz and colleagues at Carnegie-Mellon University (Pittsburgh) combined multiple AM and subtractive processes into a single automated system capable of producing complete, custom products—not merely mechanical parts, but fully integrated systems, including mechanisms and embedded electronics. In 1997, Marshall Burns, founder and president of the Ennex Corp. (Los Angeles), suggested that a large consumer market for "personal fabrication systems" might develop within 10 years. More recently, these themes have been reprised and popularized by Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, in his book
FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. It envisions a "democratization of innovation," peer-to-peer manufacturing services, online marketplaces of downloadable product designs—all driven by consumer desktop fabrication tools capable of producing complete products, and the ubiquity of powerful computers, peer-to-peer communications, and user-generated content.

If one were to synthesize a definition of a "personal fabricator" from these origins, it might be "a small, simple, affordable machine capable of producing complete products automatically from computer data and raw materials." Some commercial AM systems, with prices now falling toward $15,000, or the hobbyist CNC machines available for under $1000, would meet this definition today, were it not for their inability to produce more than mechanical parts. What these lack is a means of fabricating the other functions and materials one might desire in a product, such as the electronics, motors, sensors, composites, fabrics, and so on.

My colleagues and I at Cornell University have demonstrated that a single, very simple, very inexpensive AM system—essentially a syringe pump on a Cartesian robot—can fabricate products with many functions. The Fab@Home system we devised is an open-source, DIY (do-it-yourself) machine, costing roughly $3000. More than 150 Fab@Home machines are in use worldwide. These can make rigid and elastic-polymer mechanical parts, electrical circuits, polymer transistors, relays, polymer actuators, alkaline batteries, engineered living tissues, chocolate sculptures, cake decorations, and hors d'oeuvres—all directly from computer data and raw materials. This experience suggests that personal fabricators are plausible, and that business exigencies, not technical barriers, prevent commercial system manufacturers from including some of these capabilities in their systems.

At the same time that much of the manufacturing and product innovation capacity of the US has been outsourced abroad, there has been a florescence of modern technological artisans here at home, as witnessed by the massive growth in publications, gatherings, marketplaces, and blogs devoted to crafts, technological hobbies, and innovation.

These new artisans represent the massive innovation potential of a techsavvy public which, at least at first, is not constrained by intellectual property law, enterprise infrastructure, or business models. Personal fabrication is now in their toolbox, because of open-source projects such as RepRap, Fab@Home, and CandyFab. The portability of digital designs and the accuracy of computer-controlled fabrication systems may allow modern artisans to overcome the lack of standardization that handicapped cottage industries of old.


A Bailout Can't Fix the Auto Industry's Basic Problems


By William A. Levinson, CMfgE, PE
Principal Consultant
Levinson Productivity Systems, P.C.
Wilkes-Barre, PA

A loan or bailout for the automobile industry makes as much sense as a blood transfusion without any effort to close the patient's gaping wounds. The auto industry is currently bleeding money through overproduction, runaway health care costs, and wasted skilled labor (in the notorious "job bank").

The problem is not that there are too many car dealers, but that there is too much inventory on dealer lots. Henry Ford's My Life and Work (1922) says, "We make cars to sell, not to store, and a month's unsold production would turn into a sum the interest on which alone would be enormous." Instead, the car companies push inventory onto dealer lots, presumably to keep their production lines running and absorb overhead. Consumers can and should game this dysfunctional system by waiting until the end of the model year, when the dealer and/or manufacturer must offer incentives to move the obsolete inventory to make room for more inventory. The carrying costs are waste by definition, because they are not something for which customers are willing to pay.

Bill Gates' Business @ the Speed of Thought (1999) recommends that automakers enable customers to buy and configure cars online the way they can custom- configure personal computers, and Ford CEO Jacques Nasser endorsed a similar strategy in 1999. This would:

  • Eliminate the inventory and its carrying cost.
  • Eliminate the production of vehicles for whose colors, options, or styles customers are not willing to pay.
  • Allow dealers to sell the land they previously needed to store the inventory, thus releasing tied up capital and also eliminating the associated property taxes.

Under current conditions, though, any loan or bailout would go toward the production of inventory that might or might not be saleable, especially during a time when consumers have to curtail their expenditures. Meanwhile, General Motors' estimated cost of poor quality in employee health care could easily waste 10–20% of a $25 billion bailout package in a single year, and this does not even count Ford's and Chrysler's additional shares of this waste.

In 2005, GM's health care costs were $5 billion, of which 30–60% ($2.65 to $5.30 a share) was wasted on the cost of poor quality in health care (Godfrey 2000). The automakers have yet, however, to insist that the health care providers who treat their employees and retirees meet the same quality standards required of their part suppliers (ISO/TS 16949 or the related ISO 9001 standard). This is despite the fact that GM's own industry association, the Automotive Industry Action Group, provided an off-the-shelf solution in the form of a healthcare-specific version of ISO 9001:2000. The Department of Health and Human Services reports, however, that the automakers are at least developing incentives for health care providers to improve their quality (2007).

It is a basic lean-manufacturing principle that the instant a company lays off workers whom productivity improvements make unnecessary, it ends the worker's cooperation with the lean manufacturing program—and rightly so. The UAW's infamous job bank is, however, a perversion and a parody of this principle. Competent lean manufacturing practitioners do not insult the excess workers and waste their job skills by paying them to mark time. They move them to other jobs that are probably a lot more interesting than the repetitive and labor-intensive ones that have been eliminated. The reassignment is, in fact, a reward for the workers' participation in productivity improvement efforts.

If the auto industry cannot think of meaningful employment for these workers, we can help them out with at least one idea. The industry recently had to recall millions of Chinese-made valve stems due to quality problems. Most of the workers in the job bank would rather make high-quality valve stems and mark the packages "Made in the USA" than watch videos, work crossword puzzles, or stare at the wall. Wouldn't you?


This article was first published in the June 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 6/1/2009

Editor's Picks

Advanced Manufacturing Media - SME
U.S. Office  |  One SME Drive, Dearborn, MI 48128  |  Customer Care: 800.733.4763  |  313.425.3000
Canadian Office  |  7100 Woodbine Avenue, Suite 312, Markham, ON, L3R 5J2  888.322.7333
Tooling U  |   3615 Superior Avenue East, Building 44, 6th Floor, Cleveland, OH 44114  |  866.706.8665