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Mark Schmit

Quality Insider

Manufacturing Is Who We Are

U.S. manufacturing may have problems, but identity issues aren’t among them

Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 17:08

Toward the end of summer, I was part of an assembled mass of governors and manufacturers at a Walmart-led summit in Florida. My boss, the Secretary of Commerce (or most accurately, my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss) was there, too.

There we all were, attending a summit designed to revitalize, rejuvenate, and re-establish the preeminence of American manufacturing. The agenda was lofty, ambitious, and inspiring; a well-orchestrated pep rally in support of American manufacturing led by the world’s largest retailer.

As Walmart President Bill Simon concluded his closing remarks, he told the audience, “Making things is part of who we are.” He went on to state, “You see, we all identify with what we made in our home towns. I’m from Hartford, Connecticut, where we made Pratt & Whitney engines and Colt firearms.”

So there I was, in the very first row (well, right behind the reserved rows), putting myself in Simon’s shoes and giving myself the same speech. My internal audience was treated to this gem: “I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we make Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Miller beer.” (He has better speech writers than I do.)

Right on! Manufacturing is part of our identities, our regional personalities, our culture. It is who we are. It is where we are from. Once I thought about it, that internal audience was definitely not the first time I confessed my background in Milwaukee with Harley and Miller. Manufacturing is a source of civic identity and pride as well as community-building.

Have you ever met someone from Cedar Rapids, Iowa? If you have, I am certain they’ll tell you that Crunch Berry cereal is made there. Meeting someone from Elkhart County in Indiana? They will invariably boast that their home town is the location of the manufacturer of half the RV’s on the road. It’s inevitable.

With the exception of (maybe) professional sports teams, we tend to introduce ourselves in regard to what gets made in our home towns. We connect with people by describing what we make. Sure, the sports thing can throw a wrench in the process if you root for the Green Bay Packers or the Milwaukee Brewers, but those nicknames have a manufacturing pedigree, so they work on a lot of levels.

Don’t believe me yet? Try this word association game. Match the city with its manufacturing-related nickname:

a.) Chicago

­­____the Steel City

b.) Pittsburgh

­____the Motor City

c.) Detroit

____the City of Broad Shoulders

How’d you do? I bet even if you are not from any of these places you were able to score 100 percent. If you didn’t get a perfect score, don’t fret, because I have an extra credit question I think will redeem your average: Why do you think Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley?

There’s a case to be made that economies change faster than nicknames can catch up. It wasn’t too long ago that Akron, Ohio, was known as Rubber City. I guess to some of the older set that is probably still true. Rubber tires are now the domain of the south with the Carolinas, North and South, leading the charge.

Other places soon to be adopting new titles include the Ohio towns of Bucyrus and Circleville, and Mattoon, Illinois. During the Florida summit, GE’s Jeff Immelt announced new high-efficiency lighting plants bringing 150 manufacturing jobs to those locations. “We wanted to be a part of this,” Immelt said. “This is a first step.” I believe these kinds of announcements should be viewed in the proper light, don’t you? I suggest 60 watts.

Now you try it. Pretend you are Bill Simon (feels pretty cool being on that stage, huh?). Practice your speech.

“I am from (insert city name here) and we make....”

I bet that inserting your birth city and what gets manufactured there was pretty darn easy. Or you can say, “Right now I live in (insert city name) and we make....” Manufacturing does not have an identity problem. Quite the contrary. Manufacturing is our identity. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. It’s where we have been and where we are going. Let’s be proud of that.

First published Oct. 23, 2013, on the Manufacturing Innovation Blog.


About The Author

Mark Schmit’s picture

Mark Schmit

Mark Schmit has served multiple roles while with the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). Schmit is currently MEP’s National Accounts Manager. In this role he is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He identifies new business opportunities that leverage state & federal funding with the goal to improve the competitiveness of US- based manufacturers. His major area of focus supply chain optimization.