From ideas to concept sketches converted to scaled drawings to parts, I had products from flying jet packs to entire underwater cities all worked out, except just one minor thing…my jigsaw and rasp could not get me past a crude prototype stage. My ability to make things could not keep up with my boyhood imagination. At 11 years old, I was just plain stuck and I did not like that feeling one little bit. Yet, it motivated me to do the hard things required to ultimately enjoy the freedoms of capability and capacity.
Over the last months, most of us have had cause to feel “stuck” at least in the isolation of social distancing. For me, the most frustrating “stuck” feeling came from recognizing the shortcomings of our local capacity for critical supplies. The feeling was hauntingly familiar to when I was young, except this time, it was not due to lack of skills and tools. In this case, scarcity fully unveiled our overdependence on long, unsecured supply chains for too much of what we need most.
COVID-19 is a wake-up call that has brought to light underinvestment in our local manufacturing infrastructure. In recent decades, we have chosen not to make enough critical things close to home.1 When it comes to the essential and strategic, a “just-in-time” mentality has overstretched supply chains and depleted local stock to an unacceptable level. The pandemic has forcefully brought this overlooked need to the forefront of awareness.
Our current situation reminds us of how fragile our freedoms are. The restrictions we have experienced have reminded me to cherish our freedom of assembly and liberty to protect ourselves spiritually, mentally, physically and fiscally. Undergirding these is the paramount need to be able to grow, make and distribute goods. Although information is now supplied to us largely digitally, this cannot happen without the production and efficient distribution of certain physical products. Additionally, there is no digital substitute for food, medicine or toilet paper. Our fight for freedom from want lies in our ability to make. The current crisis has highlighted our voluntary surrender of too much of this capability and capacity.
This wake-up call invokes the need for each of us to reassert our freedom and invest in the infrastructure that enables it. We can follow the two steps below to help alleviate our self-inflicted supply chain over dependency:
Step 1: We each need to be healed, renewed and fortified from the effects of this widespread challenge. For that reason, I see this step as:
As passionate as I am about each of these things, it is our humanity toward each other that we most need to exercise and champion in this time! What we make of our relationships is always more fulfilling than what we make. Putting people first with civility always brings the greatest long-term rewards. After all, the ultimate aim of what we make is to provide for good local and global citizens.
Our manufacturing community has shown its humanity and civility by serving people in need. As readers that represent this community, I thank you for the generosity that so many of you have chosen at this time. Please pass on my thanks to your managers and employers!
I am deeply touched by the 43 workers at Braskem USA, Marcus Hook, Pa., a petrochemical plant, who locked themselves in for 28 days straight to produce millions of pounds of polypropylene—a key polymer for masks, filters and other medical equipment. Countless molding companies that have created tools for personal protective equipment inspire me. I am enthusiastic about the many design iterations for respirators, masks and face shields that are being shared freely. It is wonderful to see new approaches to nasopharyngeal swab production and disease-resistant coatings. To the individuals who 3D printed or hand assembled thousands of pieces of PPE, we salute you!
Step 2: Fortunately, the pandemic has pivoted our attention to locally making what we need. It is inspirational to see the many parallel efforts unifying communities and continents on an unprecedented scale. We saw 3D printing and CNC machining sprint to fill the supply chain gaps, closely followed by other manufacturing techniques tooling up for production in record times. I have been gratified to join with others to help innovate a new path, called AXIOM, that blends 3D-printing flexibility with injection molding speed and quality specifically to supplement existing supply chains.
Supply scarcity has highlighted the need for innovation and investment in manufacturing beyond the incumbent manufacturing community. The spotlight is now shining on local manufacturing like never before in this millennium. I posit that the way manufacturers are rising to meet these challenges is a watershed moment where we are ushering in a golden age of manufacturing reborn in the age of data.
So to each of my fellow manufacturing enthusiasts: Print on! Mill on! Cut on! Fab on! Form on! Cast on! Mold on! Make on! Hybridize on!
My earnest hope is that we will unshackle ourselves from the supply chain bonds that we have made. To the degree that we are stuck, let us discipline ourselves to get “unstuck” by empowering our local manufacturing base. Doing so while exercising more humanity, we will be reclaiming our freedoms in pursuit of a more perfect union.
1 Contrary to common narratives, researchers have attributed the reduction of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. since the 2000s primarily to offshoring with a far lower impact from the adoption of automation. See Gwynn Guilford (2018) “The epic mistake about manufacturing that’s cost Americans millions of jobs” and Houseman, et al. (2011). “Offshoring Bias in U.S. Manufacturing.”
In early June, SME announced its 2020 SME College of Fellows. This level of recognition is only attained after achieving more than 20 years of significant career contributions in manufacturing.
These seven elected manufacturing leaders, all SME members, have diverse technical backgrounds spanning advanced technologies and processes, including additive manufacturing, automation, machining, nano and micromanufacturing, welding, microembossing, soft lithography, metrology, advanced materials, simulation and more. Their ongoing work has impacted a variety of industries, including aerospace and defense, energy, space and automotive.
2020 SME College of Fellows:
Since 1986, SME has recognized over 400 individuals as SME Fellows. Winners vetted through the SME International Awards & Recognition Committee receive lifetime, dues-free membership and carry the designation “FSME” (Fellow of SME) after their names.
SME is accepting nominations for the 2021 SME College of Fellows through Dec. 1. Previous winners, award information and nomination criteria can be found at sme.org/fellows.
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