We can do more as a nation to accelerate manufacturing expansion, says the author. | AP Photo
A quiet revolution is under way today inside many U.S. factories.
Using modern processes, large and small manufacturers are creating U.S. jobs, exports and economic strength at a time when these gains are especially important.
Thanks to machine tool technology advances, U.S. corporations of all sizes have become more competitive, boosting their output per labor hour — the definition of productivity increase — without raising costs. Many U.S. firms now provide global customers with the lowest cost per part available anywhere. Beyond increased efficiency, favorable economic forces also strengthen our manufacturing sector.
“The gap between U.S. and Chinese wages is narrowing rapidly,” according to the Boston Consulting Group, which speaks of a “manufacturing renaissance.” The respected business strategy firm forecasts a continuing shift back to stateside production – “reshoring” or “insourcing” – for some appliances and heavy equipment marketed domestically. It cites a new Caterpillar plant in Texas, with 500 workers.
Manufacturing has added more than 230,000 jobs since January 2010, according to federal figures. Economic activity in the sector expanded in May, for the 22nd straight month, and is growing at its fastest pace since 2004, according to the Institute for Supply Management.
Many toolmakers are resuming two- and three-shift operations, reopening a production spigot they turned off in late 2008, when the global financial crisis began. With auto makers and many other manufacturers reinvesting, the order pipeline is refilling.
The death of American manufacturing has clearly been greatly exaggerated.
More than 50 bills have been introduced in Congress to bolster this sector. One measure calls on the administration to work with industry, labor leaders and others “to achieve the greatest economic opportunity for manufacturers in America.” according to of Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill with 28 bipartisan cosponsors. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a Senate version.
It’s encouraging to see Congress focus on manufacturers as a vital national resource. Just as positive is the White House support for an expanded Skills for America’s Future program, which aims to help 500,000 community college students “get industry-accepted credentials for manufacturing jobs that companies across America are looking to fill,” as President Barack Obama announced in early June.
But we can do more as a nation to accelerate manufacturing expansion and make it a permanent cornerstone of our economy.
A national commitment to manufacturing would be similar to the one that made NASA a priority during the 1960s. The parallels are striking — as could be the results:
• Manufacturing, like the space program, can benefit from a new generation of engineers, computer scientists, research and development support and technology skills training.
• As a leading-edge field, dependent on computer-assisted design, robotics, laser tools, battery improvements, green processes and global logistics, manufacturing is a high-skill, well-paid career.
• Innovations developed and patented for manufacturing can migrate to energy, health care, electronics, telecommunications and other areas — much as many NASA research breakthroughs spread.
• Seeing more Americans build what we use and export should bolster the economy and national pride, just as when we built rockets carrying capsules that could circle the globe.
As part of this effort, the American Machine Tool Distributors’ Association is joining with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and several leading companies to inaugurate a manufacturing summit this fall. The Interactive Manufacturing Experience, or imX, is designed to share new technologies and foster collaboration that can help advance our industry.
We want to show how manufacturers in aerospace, automotive, medical devices and other fields are rebooting to reach higher levels of innovation, efficiency and productivity in the U.S.
We plan on addressing challenges that define the future of our entire industry, including workforce development, cost reduction, green manufacturing, production floor networking, micro-machining technology, lean manufacturing and other topics.
But the crucial conversations at imX must extend beyond this three-day summit. Discussions about the future of U.S. manufacturing – the economic engine of our nation – must continue in Washington, on factory floors and in boardrooms across the country. And they must lead to collaborative action by government and industry leaders if manufacturing is to continue powering our economy to a full recovery.
Peter A. Borden is president of the American Machine Tool Distributors’ Association. The group is a founder of the inaugural Interactive Manufacturing Experience (imX), a manufacturing summit this September.