Viewpoints: Manufacturing Is Essential
Just when the public perception of US manufacturers finally moved from irrelevant to significant—at long last acknowledged as the mighty engine sustaining our world leadership as producers and exporters of manufactured products—two shoes dropped. First, the real estate and financial markets led us into widespread, even global, economic contraction, pushing the manufacturing sector to the back pages of the newspapers. Then the second shoe dropped, as the world's auto industry struggled financially, and the problems of the US Big Three—as a group the largest contributor to US manufacturing output and jobs—were seen to threaten their very survival.
Are we in the manufacturing field still relevant to the greater economic scheme?
We are relevant, and will be a primary mover in the recovery. Predicting the precise moment in time when we will escape from the current morass is challenging, but we can begin to identify the likely state of recovery.
Manufacturing will continue to be a critically important component of our economy and our national security. The value of a complex financial derivative of the kind that shocked world economies defies clear explanation. The value of manufacturing technology and expertise is simple, straightforward, and unchanged over time—make it better, faster, for less cost, or you lose the opportunity to a competitor across town or across oceans. We all can understand this test as the basis for investment or value. It applies to making widgets or cars or trucks. That we retain our position of world leadership in manufacturing tangible products that sustain our economic vitality and national security—not paper—remains important to our nation.
Some preferred choices for change emerged from last year's electoral process.We will accept higher accountability to avoid excesses in every dimension of our lives—from greenhouse emissions, the cars we drive, and excessive executive compensation and expenses, to less reliance on foreign fossil fuels. The hard choices of how and when have not been made, but there seems to be no turning back.We will pursue change. In the same way that we lined up behind NASA to get us to the moon and back, we will find a national resolve to become more fuel efficient, including the development of more renewable energy sources. There will be new sources of capital that will necessarily lead to new manufacturing challenges to build new products—fuel-efficient cars, trucks, turbines, safe nuclear power generation, and coal and gas-conversion equipment. Manufactured products will be required to deliver these collective dreams.
In all industries, the critical demands on cash and capital will continue to push the subcontracting of more and more manufactured parts, and entire assemblies, down into the supply chain. The traditional tier-one suppliers face the same cash shortages as the primes, and are also forcing manufacturing responsibilities down their broad supply chains to make more parts. Smaller, leaner, more-efficient companies will continue to account for a greater share of manufacturing output. Those who apply advanced manufacturing technologies will achieve a competitive advantage.
As part of a global economic stimulus, all industrial nations will invest heavily in infrastructure. We will put a lot of people to work rebuilding everything from schools, highways, and bridges, to airports and energy transmission. Manufacturing will help provide the devices needed for this infrastructure work.
Despite the reliance on US manufacturing to support economic recovery, we still face a critical shortage of skilled workers. We are losing skilled people through attrition more rapidly than we are managing to train and replace them. Our future depends on more-efficient manufacturing processes, as well as improved productivity and more practical training to prepare a new generation of manufacturing technicians. We no longer need just machinists—we need the technicians who can leverage new manufacturing technologies to keep us competitive. We need new skills to apply, install, and support new technologies. Manufacturing has always created jobs that are economically viable—many more than the service sector. In the US, manufacturing will continue to provide secure and well-paying jobs that support mortgages and encourage continuing education. Fast-food shops and mortgage bankers cannot lead us out of recession. Manufacturing can and will.
Manufacturing is as relevant today as it has ever been. As you participate in our national debate on the shape and substance of change, be certain to remind others that manufacturing is essential to virtually every challenge and every choice we must consider.
This article was first published in the June 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.