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Mike Richman


Appreciating U.S. Industry

Why Manufacturing Day matters

Published: Thursday, October 5, 2017 - 12:03

Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, is Manufacturing Day, one of the most important events of the year for those of us working within industry. On this occasion, we should all take some time to honor the science and art of manufacturing, an endeavor that has quite literally built our amazing modern society from the ground up.

Although Manufacturing Day was launched only five year ago, its antecedents began decades if not centuries before. In a certain sense, the discipline that we honor on the first Friday of each October traces its origins back to the beginning of the United States itself, a country birthed at the start of the initial Industrial Revolution. From the very beginning, this nation was conceived as a place where innovation could flourish. The emerging workshops and factories of early America quickly matured, and by the middle of the 19th century, U.S. manufacturing companies were among the best in the world in a host of sectors, including shipbuilding, metalworking, textiles, armaments, and many others.

Until a scant few decades ago, manufacturing here in the United States continued to lead the national economy. “Made in the USA” equaled “quality” both for exported goods as well as those kept within the shores of the country. U.S. manufacturing helped win wars and provided a material prosperity the likes of which the world had never seen before.

A different reality

Today, of course, the reality is somewhat different. The service sector in the United States contributes more than five times the economic output of manufacturing, a gap that has been widening for many years. Now, for the first time in several generations, protectionist-leaning federal policies threaten the ideals of free trade, a system that almost always benefited American companies and workers in the past. Protectionism may make some sense, however, in a tightly interconnected world economy in which companies in certain third-world areas can manufacture goods at shockingly low prices. The cost of labor, naturally, allows this kind of predatory pricing, and from that perspective U.S. companies not only can’t compete... they often don’t even want to.

Yet with all that, there are millions of jobs still tied to manufacturing in this country, and thus the success or failure of this sector affects in no small degree the overall success or failure of the U.S. economy. There are several ways that the U.S. government helps support American manufacturing in the short term—carrots like tax breaks, or sticks like tariffs. Longer term, the best investment in the future of manufacturing in this country may very well be an increased focus on career opportunities “stemming” from an educational focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.

And then there’s automation, the ultimate good news/bad news technological advance that has made (and continues to make) manufacturing more and more productive. Yet those productivity gains have frequently come at the expense of jobs that once were done by fabricators, assemblers, riveters, trimmers, inspectors, and dozens of other human occupations, but which are now increasingly handled by robots.

There are a great many other broad and sustained changes that have come to affect the technology of manufacturing just since the turn of the millennium. Whether it’s the internet of things, cloud computing, edge computing, molecular computing, rapid prototyping, 3D printing, big data, model-based definition, or any number of others, the way in which manufacturing works has undergone and continues to undergo a sea change.

Shades of gray

Put all these historic, economic, social, and technological pieces together, and what do you have? A big, complex, multifaceted and occasionally contradictory endeavor that’s continually reinventing itself. In other words, a messy melting pot of an industry very much like the United States itself, with way more shades of gray than black or white. The big-picture issues facing manufacturing all contain opportunities and risks in almost equal measure. Just like automation or trade policy, every action causes a reaction, and good intentions often cause unexpected consequences.

For a wonderful case study of how this has played out in one key manufacturing sector, check out QD editorial director Taran March’s recent op-ed, “Rocks, Riches, Rust,” in which she analyzes the past, present, and future of the steel industry. This sector, which was so central to the overwhelming success of U.S. manufacturing in past generations, is now buffeted by powerful forces such as automation, innovation, predatory foreign pricing, and trade policy in general. It’s an interesting way to consider high-tech manufacturing in microcosm.

Now, for those of you in manufacturing, little of this might be new information. In fact, I’m sure there are many important chapters in the story that I’ve unintentionally left out—and I encourage you to chime in via the “Comments” section below with your additions to my list of the key factors affecting your industry.

I’d also like to encourage all of you to tune in for a brand-new program that we’re offering during Manufacturing Day tomorrow. We call it our Virtual Test and Measurement Expo, and it will be a two hour-long video extravaganza featuring live look-ins at Manufacturing Day events; interviews with quality professionals doing interesting and important work in the field; demos from the L.S. Starrett Co., FARO Technologies, and Starrett Kinemetric; and your questions answered by top application engineers. This will be an opportunity for us to consider together what manufacturing means, and how test and measurement tools help ensure quality output for us all.

I hope you all will join us on for our Virtual Test and Measurement Expo on Manufacturing Day. You can watch the show here.


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Mike Richman