Has U. S. manufacturing turned the corner?

April 5, 2011
In a recent interview on NPR, Dow Corning CEO Robert Liveris freely acknowledged that Dow has plants all around the world

Craig Slass
Rotor Clip Company Inc.
Somerset, N. J.

Edited by Kenneth J. Korane

In a recent interview on NPR, Dow Corning CEO Robert Liveris freely acknowledged that Dow has plants all around the world. But he emphasized America needs to continue making things within its borders to provide jobs and increase exports. “We can’t lose this country having a manufacturing-based hub,” he said. “Sure, we’ll build factories around the world, but the hub needs to stay here.”

There’s growing evidence that U. S. manufacturing is on the rebound. Companies such as Caterpillar and General Electric are ramping up domestic production and investing in new factories and design centers. GE CEO Jeffery Immelt has stated that U. S. workers make higher-quality products for less, prompting his company to bring appliance jobs back from China and Mexico.

A study last year indicated 44% of engineers and buyers surveyed who were outsourcing production experienced significant supply chain disruptions. As a result, 2012 is on pace to be the year of “backshoring,” with more companies bringing manufacturing back to the U. S. after outsourcing to lower-cost countries.

And experts widely agree that manufacturing has been one of the economic recovery’s bright spots, as output has expanded for a year and a half and exports have grown steadily. Is the optimism justified? Is manufacturing indeed turning a corner regarding its place in our economy?

There are definite signs of a limited comeback. After all, U. S. manufacturing is due for a rebirth of sorts. We have weathered hard times, competing with cheap labor in places like Mexico and China, and even seeing service jobs head to low-cost countries like India. Plants have been shuttered and jobs lost. But those of us still standing are stronger for the experience. We’ve learned you can compete globally by using technology to lower costs and providing service that overseas companies cannot match.

Techniques like lean manufacturing have focused attention on doing things better. Employees understand that a job is more than punching in and out, and that, as the ones who do the work, they are the primary source of process improvement. Work smarter, not harder is the new mantra, and employees have gotten the message.

Service has been another key to the manufacturing rally in this country. Today’s emphasis is not merely on selling products, but on assisting customers to ensure those products function as intended and meet expectations. If there’s a problem, a manufacturer’s rep is quickly there to assist. That’s a tough feature to match for an overseas company with no real organization in the U. S.

Management has learned its own lessons. They are not merely there to administer schedules and keep the workforce in line. Rather, they must motivate and inspire the next wave of creative changes and ensure everyone has the tools to implement them.

It’s true that manufacturing will probably not employ the huge number of workers it once did in our country. Technology and innovation have eliminated the more-mundane, repetitive operations. But we’ll always need creative ideas that can be turned into production techniques that lower costs and help us compete on a global playing field..

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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