Manufacturing Has an Answer

Turning Point

Like many of you, I was raised to try to repair something that wasn’t working correctly. A tweak here, a thump there and voila—it works. My father instilled this in me from an early age by example. He was never afraid to roll up his sleeves and take a look at virtually any problem—mechanical, electrical, even plumbing.

 

If my mom wanted a new closet, he built one for her. He’d frame it up, hang dry wall and mud the seams expertly. More often than not, Dad’s handy work was more out of necessity because it costs money to pay for stuff and why should you if you have the skills or are at least willing to give it a shot. Plus, he usually did as good or even better work than most hired people. Meeting people who, like my dad, take pride in making things is among the most rewarding part of my job.

However, a recent article in the “Wall Street Journal” gave me pause that perhaps the breed of people who make things may be endangered. The article’s premise is that we are becoming a nation of takers rather than makers. It uses the dramatic upswing in government employment versus the decline in value added (wealth producing) employment in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, mining, farming, fishing, forestry and utilities.

 

Author Stephen Moore cites some grim statistics to make his case. For example, he writes, “In America today there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.”

 

While I find these numbers interesting, they are not all that surprising. There is a mitigating factor in these numbers that is important to consider and that is the increase in productivity experienced in all of these value added industries. We make more stuff, raise more crops, dig more coal, catch more fish, cut more lumber and generate more power with far fewer people than in 1960. The output per worker in each industry is dramatic, and this efficiency is a primary source for what global competitiveness we have.

 

Moreover, there have been additional new industries that have come on board in the past few decades, such as telecommunications, electronics and medical arts manufacturing, which are helping replace some industries that have migrated elsewhere.

As an aside, I find a little comfort in what I hear more frequently from some of our numerous government employees—use of the word “manufacturing” and an apparent realization that it’s important to prop up the largess. Is it lip service or actionable? Time will tell.

 

Looking at our own slice of this pie that is precision machining, it’s clear that we are doing more with less. Advances in machine tool technology have allowed much faster processing of more complex workpieces in lot sizes that would have been considered uneconomical not long ago.    

Automation, which we are covering in several articles in this issue (pages 28, 30 and 34) is supplanting historic metrics productivity such as cycle time in favor of throughput. While the machine tool is still considered by most to be the master tool, increasingly, accessories placed upstream and downstream of the machine play critical roles in efficiency of the entire part production process.       

 

However implementation of automation changes the skill set requirement of shop employees and brings us to education. That, in turn, brings us back to Mr. Moore’s article. He writes, “But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards; we gauge school performance not by outputs but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn’t pay teachers enough or we need smaller classes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would need half as many educators, smaller school budgets, higher graduation rates and test scores.”

 

Perhaps the public sector has a thing or two to learn from private manufacturing. One big difference, I think, is the motivation to be better. Survival motivates the private sector to improve and better compete. How can the public sector be re-wired to understand the concept of accountability, such as actions have consequences? Manufacturing can teach the principles. Of course, the question is, will people listen? 