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Yesterday’s Lessons and Tomorrow’s Opportunity

Thomas Kurfess
By Thomas Kurfess 2018 SME President

When I was growing up, my family owned a small machine shop in the Chicagoland area. My grandparents all immigrated to the US from a war-torn Europe in the early 1920s with the hope of a new life based on the American dream. Both of my grandfathers were machinists, and my father was an engineer and a member of SME’s Chicago Chapter 5, joining the American Society of Tool and Manufacturing Engineers in 1964—the year I was born.

Arguably, the world was a different place 50-plus years ago. The Internet did not exist, radio and television signals were wireless, and phones were not. Computers were in their infancy, but unlike an infant, they grew smaller over time, and their successors would become smaller yet, to the point that a piece of common jewelry, the smart watch, has more computing power in it than all of the systems that once put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

The “Good Old Days”—and Today

I have had many conversations about the “good old days” of manufacturing with my colleagues. The discussion often turns to times when the US was a powerhouse and dominated the manufacturing world. The conversation inevitably leads to the discussion of the downturn in US manufacturing, the loss of jobs and the idling of plants. We often see images of production lines and plants of years gone by that now sit idle, dust-covered reminders of better times.

What we often don’t think about is that, by modern standards, those idled facilities were highly inefficient, polluted our world, and caused many short-term and long-term health issues for our workforce. The modern production facility is a high-tech, clean and efficient operation that not only produces quality goods, but is the backbone for our society and economy.

Modern manufacturing facilities are high-tech, clean, and efficient.

A quick tour of a modern production facility will demonstrate just what a wonderful and amazing place modern manufacturing plants are. I have seen children of all ages being amazed by CNC equipment cutting high-temperature superalloys for jet engines, or robots assembling cars and high-performance aircraft. Better yet, after such eye-opening tours, I have heard those children profess, very enthusiastically, their desire to work in such a high-tech place and go into manufacturing.

So how do we get those kids into manufacturing? Well, it’s all about advanced technology enabling innovation. We need to ensure we keep moving technical innovation forward in the plants, and we need to assure that our future and current workforce is ready to use the latest technologies available to them today, and in the years to come.

SME is at that nexus of bringing vision to reality, not only helping to transition new technologies from our leading universities and high-tech startup companies into production, but also training our workforce to completely leverage those new capabilities. This will ensure great opportunities in manufacturing for the future, and a strong and vibrant workforce enabling industry to fully embrace, deploy and leverage such opportunities.

With training capabilities such as Tooling U-SME, and SME’s significant and trusted knowledge base, we are training current and future generations of the manufacturing workforce, enabling them to secure high-paying jobs today and tomorrow. With groups such as SME’s North American Manufacturing Research Institution (NAMRI), we are moving technology forward to unprecedented capabilities, and there is no end in sight!

Sure, it warms my heart and puts a smile on my face when I pick up the scent of coolant, which reminds me of the countless early-morning hours I spent at my father’s machine shop, working on the lathes and mills. I suppose as a manufacturing engineer that does bring back some wonderful times from my youth. Back then, we did not have mist extractors, which make modern machine tools and facilities much healthier—just another example of how manufacturing has changed. What lights my fire today is that change: Where we are and where we are going.

My hope for 2018 and beyond is that we continue to advance manufacturing, enabling innovators to make the world a better place, not only providing wonderful products for humanity but also excellent jobs for our workforce. SME is particularly well suited to help society achieve this goal, and it is my full intention, with the support of SME membership, volunteers and staff, that we do so in 2018 and that we are prepared to do so for many generations to come.

Remember, when you purchase a product, it was manufactured. You cannot be successful without strong and efficient manufacturing. You cannot make a difference in the world without manufacturing. SME can and does make a difference in manufacturing, and that is a wonderful contribution to society. I am proud to be a part of this effort and look forward to serving SME in 2018.

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