By Chris Kaiser
BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling Inc
Hoffman Estates, IL
Imagine looking out over your shop floor and seeing a young boy steering his tricycle through your machines. How many OSHA laws would that be breaking? How many safety regulations?
Five decades ago, that boy was me. And I have witnesses. One of the original operators at Heinz Kaiser AG, the tooling company my father started in Rümlang, Switzerland in 1948, is still on staff, and he remembers my tricycle laps.
So I suppose I have a unique cradle-to-now (don’t say grave), Europe-to-US perspective on the metalworking industry. I’ve been in the US since 1981, so I have been fortunate to see changes from several perspectives.
In the mid 1970s, when my father introduced NC machining at Heinz Kaiser AG, the first two NC milling machines arrived in the heart of precision engineering territory by way of Cincinnati. The US was a NC machine tool power house. But over the decades that followed, the US relinquished its status as world "innovator" in machine tools, and as we all know, some of the renowned machine tool companies were sold to companies overseas or eventually went into bankruptcy. With them went know-how and innovation. We simply didn’t buy into technology as much here in the States as they did in Europe. Maybe we didn’t feel the same pressure to innovate to stay afloat. And until the past decade, Europeans largely looked to Japan and Germany for advanced machine tools.
Of course, there were exceptions. Great companies like Haas, Hardinge, Hurco, and more recently, MAG, kept the torches burning, but the sheer volume of machines were being built elsewhere.
So at least until the last decade, the US lagged behind Europe in shop technology. You’d be hard pressed to find an operator at a drill press in Europe at this point; they’re still common here. And as Europe, pushed by the invisible hand of comparatively expensive small floor space and increasing labor costs, followed the latest technology to maintain competitiveness, the US became enamored of the offshoring trend. And I believe it was a trend—it was, to a degree, more "fashion and greed" than necessity. I’m sure there were some short-term savings, but when brands like Weber are building some of their grills in China, you have to feel American manufacturing had temporarily misplaced its soul.
Meanwhile, Europe’s limited space continued to get more limited. Multitask and five-axis machining solved the problem of two machines’ jobs on one machine, so they’ve been adapting as quickly as they could. But their cost of labor for the last decade has lapped that of the US. And now, a poor exchange rate is forcing jobs out of Switzerland and Western Europe, first into Eastern Europe, and now into China and the Pacific Rim, as well. What we did in the US out of fashion, they’re doing out of necessity or they will follow the path the US took over 10 years ago. This presents the US with a massive opportunity. And to me, to this day, the US of A is the land of opportunity like no other country in the world.
The exchange rate is particularly interesting because the lower dollar is bringing jobs back to the US. And we have advantages that Europe doesn’t have—unlimited space, lower labor costs, and a newly found abundance of energy and natural resources. And now that offshoring is going out of style, reshoring is again pushing the US to expand its technological repertoire and make the necessary investments that Europe had been making until it became unsustainable.
But the one thing we don’t have is a big enough qualified labor force. I think about the apprentice program they have at Kaiser in Switzerland. They have one full-time supervisor guiding 11 apprentices, who go to school a couple days per week, work a few days, and in four years have a certification with the option to further their schooling or look for employment. The best ones, we try to hire back; it’s like having an internal farm system. Many US manufacturing companies, like Caterpillar, GE and others, used to have such programs in place 30 years ago. Even high schools and community colleges abandoned their programs. If they had remained, there wouldn’t be a skills gap today.
But for these types of programs to work, we have to address the public perception of manufacturing. The US has the opportunity and built-in advantages to reassert itself as the world’s technological innovator. Our success or failure in attracting and grooming talent is the lynchpin. ME
This article was published in the April 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.