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Who Will Save American Manufacturing

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I spent a good portion of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday on my hands and knees installing a new vinyl tile floor at my wife’s place of business. The 16-inch-square Mannington Adura tiles look like real stone because they’re printed with tromp l’oeil three-dimensional images and laid in a specified orientation to support the illusion of depth. Then they’re grouted like ceramic tile using a proprietary vinyl grout. They’re rated for light commercial use, weigh a ton, cost plenty, carry three U.S. patents and, to my amazement, are made in China.

The dollar value of American manufacturing, like most everywhere in the world, is growing in absolute terms, but it’s a shrinking percentage of the U.S. economy. Still, politicians and pundits place increasing importance on manufacturing as an engine of U.S. job recovery. This is not the place to discuss the reasoning or wisdom behind that position, but I will say (from my kneeling position on a Chinese floor) that if it’s going to be anything more than wishful thinking, we have a tough road ahead.

According to Craig Giffi, vice chairman and U.S. leader for consumer and industrial products at DeLoitte, it’s a road worth traveling. “The advancement of manufacturing capabilities is the most important link to increasing the economic prosperity of a nation,” Giffi asserted in his keynote speech for the Perspectives program at this year’s Automation Fair. “Advanced manufacturing capabilities directly determine the ability to accelerate economic development.”

Giffi presented reams of charts and graphs correlating various countries’ economic prosperity (measured in the ethically flawed but commonly accepted GDP-per-capita) with an economic complexity index (ECI) expressing the degree of technical sophistication of the country’s manufacturing output. (Electronics are more sophisticated than canned beans or concrete – I presume tromp l’oeil vinyl tile lies somewhere in between.) More sophisticated manufacturing correlates with higher prosperity.

He also correlated his ECI with exports: higher complexity means higher exports and greater prosperity. With global energy and materials commodities markets, it’s increasingly difficult to come up with clear national advantages for manufacturing goods for export. Trade barriers have almost all been dismantled by free trade agreements, and intellectual capital from formulas to automation algorithms flows freely around the world thanks to electronic communications and computer-aided design and manufacturing software.

“Digitization has enabled companies to replicate advanced technology and capabilities and facilities anywhere,” Giffi says. “Increasing access to and application of advanced technology enables near identical production capabilities in any location that has skilled talent, supporting infrastructure and favorable policy.”

We’ll all keep pushing for what we see as supporting infrastructure and favorable policy – Giffi includes affordable, clean energy and reliable supplies of reasonably priced materials – but if you want to see the skilled talent, just look in the mirror.

I know from 30 years of working with, reading about, interviewing and writing about facility, production and maintenance managers, engineers and technicians that you are the engines of innovation and productivity in industrial facilities. It’s your abilities to see what needs to be done, to see a better way, to take an idea from R&D or a university and turn it into a process, a faster process, a more efficient process, a higher-quality process, that has moved us to where we are today.

Many of you are peak performers, doing all you can to make things better every day. I admire and thank you.

Many are finding their way, still learning and striving, often against a headwind of bad management, surly coworkers and cruel budgets. Please, don’t give up and go join the service economy. I assure you, there’s a place in manufacturing where your attitude and talents will be appreciated.

I also know that many of you are tired, frustrated, beaten down and marking time. Most of you have vast knowledge and experience, and could still make a huge difference with just a little more effort. Don’t do it for me, do it for yourself, and the kids. Finish with a flourish.

The fate of U.S. manufacturing largely lies where it’s always been, in the hands of the folks who want to do it and can do it well, and that is you. If the politicians and pundits are correct, you also hold the key to the economy.

Please, I don’t want to buy any more Chinese floor tile.

Paul Studebaker is the Editor-in-Chief of SustainablePlant.com. Email him at pstudebaker@putman.net or check out his Google+ profile.

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