Get with the program

Feb. 1, 2007
Since the early American settlers began making their own goods in their new homeland, U.S. manufacturing has been an engine of incredible wealth. In simply

Since the early American settlers began making their own goods in their new homeland, U.S. manufacturing has been an engine of incredible wealth. In simply meeting basic needs, it has created a standard of living that benefits hundreds of millions of people, not just domestically but also abroad.

Where riches are plentiful, however, so too are thieves. From the shop floor to the boardroom, from Wall Street to Capitol Hill, in courtrooms and in union halls, innumerable profiteers have glommed on to American industry, putting enormous pressure on the economic system keeping all of us alive. The strain that U.S. manufacturing is currently experiencing actually has more do with its success than any weakness. In fact, even as it staggers under the weight of so many inert institutions and individuals, American industry is gearing up for another run, and I don't mean to China, Malaysia, or Hong Kong.

Before I say more, I need to remind you of an editorial I wrote about an old Schwinn bicycle I restored. You'll find the article in the Knowledge FAQtory on our homepage, at

During the height of its success, Schwinn was outsourcing from as many as eight countries. In its main Chicago plant, it manufactured rims and frames, onto which it assembled gears, brakes, pedals, hubs, and other parts. In addition to being a smart manufacturer, Schwinn was an intelligent marketer, able to anticipate if not influence consumer trends and then develop products that were right on target.

When Schwinn faltered under the pressure of the inert weight mentioned above, several U.S. bicycle makers emerged to fill the vacuum, including Cannondale, Haro, Specialized, and Trek. Not surprisingly, they all followed a fairly similar formula to success: Good marketing, good suppliers, and a high-value manufacturing process that turns out customized frames in a variety of styles and sizes.

What happened in the bicycle industry — reminiscent of a cell dividing into multiple units — is about to be repeated in many industries in many ways, catalyzed by the advent of programmable automation. Even in the auto industry, we will see new U.S. manufacturers, and perhaps old ones reborn, all moving more quickly and effectively with the help of intelligent motion and automation.

With true automation finally within reach, its' not too difficult to imagine a new domestic carmaker coming on-line with a new type of vehicle, perhaps electrically powered. Take a look at what Dean Kamen has done in the area of human transporters. Add another set of wheels to his Segway scooters and put a body around it, and you're looking at something that would qualify as a car.

One reason programmable automation will trigger a renaissance in manufacturing is its scalability. With reduced entry costs, teams of talented people will more easily form to serve high-value, high-margin niches, whether its' cars, clothing, health and wellness, household appliances, or food.

Programmable automation also upgrades the roles of everyone in industry. Not long ago, equipment operators spent the majority of their time turning cranks and dials and loading machines. Today, factory workers run machines primarily through computers, spending much of their time fiddling with the virtual equivalents of cranks and dials. Really, not much has changed.

Tomorrow, however, is a whole new ballgame. Operators working in intelligent automation environments will no longer be buttonpushers because machines will run themselves. People, meanwhile, will function at a higher level, interacting with the process rather than the equipment. This will allow operators to spend more time improving quality, throughput, and yield.

To get a glimpse of this bright future, turn to page 36, where we present the first of our quarterly special sections on programmable automation. Also be sure to check out the Knowledge FAQtory, where you'll find additional information.

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