UpFront: Not Bad At All
By Brian J. Hogan
December is here, Christmas and New Year's Day are coming, and US Manufacturing seems to be doing pretty well.With the exception of companies operating in southeastern Michigan, which will probably struggle as long as the Big Three domestic car builders have problems, manufacturing groups are busy and making some money.
That's also true of shops and companies in Japan, Asia outside Japan, India, South America, and Europe. When you consider what was going on a few years ago, this worldwide manufacturing economy is a wonder. Certainly we all need to recall that the cyclical nature of manufacturing—and business in general—has not changed. But good times should be enjoyed, even while one keeps an eye on the horizon for storm clouds.
Technical advances in manufacturing equipment continue, and manufacturing engineers and managers are proving very receptive to those advances. Machine tool companies, tooling companies, automation groups—everyone is finding a market for new technology. It's well-understood, even in lower-wage places like China, that technology is the key to productivity, and improving productivity translates into making money and keeping work on the floor.
There was a time within living memory when new ideas about manufacturing equipment were very hard to sell. Decades passed before breakthrough technologies like the PLC and numerical control were adopted. One can argue that cost kept them from being picked up, or perhaps lack of training in the proper fields, but it's also likely that they encountered a strong bias against change.Times were good during the fifties and sixties, and the old saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," was taken pretty seriously.
Perhaps we're now seeing a jump to the other side of things, with people sweeping up every technology that promises to improve productivity. If that's the case, of course, the shop floor will provide the necessary corrective action. Here's a warning to inventors of new production equipment: fail on the floor and this market will show no mercy.
This year 2007 really was a pretty darn good one. And we look decently situated for a solid year in 2008.There are some significant challenges in front of the manufacturing community, to be sure. If Boeing falls still farther behind in its plans to deliver the 787, the consequences will ring through the company's global supply chain. And to avoid truly very terrible problems, the domestic Big Three must begin to mend relationships with their vendors and find solutions to the legacy problems that have hobbled them.
But let's not dwell overmuch on the dark side. Manufacturing in the US, and worldwide, has had a fine year. Let's hope for more of the same in 2008.
This article was first published in the December 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.