Confronting the elephant in the room

The manufacturing revolution is gaining momentum and true believers, and holds the potential to deliver significant economic improvement for manufacturing everywhere, if we allow it to.

By Bob Vavra, CFE Media April 18, 2017

At some point, manufacturing must confront the elephant in the room. It’s both a symbolic elephant in terms of the political party it represents, and a literal one, because one of the reasons the elephant is in the room is because someone wasn’t watching the door carefully enough. The goal now is to get the elephant out of the room before it does any significant damage.

Our manufacturing revolution is gaining momentum and true believers, and holds the potential to deliver significant economic improvement for manufacturing everywhere. That is running smack into the increasing manufacturing nationalism demonstrated by the current U.S. administration. The two are incompatible; while ‘America First’ makes a dandy slogan, it’s a lousy economic policy, especially when it’s conducted at 140 characters.

As the world will see when Hannover Messe opens again this month in Germany, the business of manufacturing is not confined to any nation’s borders. It is a global, interconnected and interdependent ecosystem. It requires the ability to speak a common language—the language of productivity.

Global suppliers and global manufacturers and global networks are creating a truly new way to measure and manage productivity. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers tremendous potential, and almost all of the 200,000-plus attendees at Hannover Messe this month will be looking to unlock all that potential. What every speaker who talks on this subject says is that IIoT will break down the walls separating departments and manufacturing sites.

And yet we see one world "leader" (apparently air quotes are the new way to avoid meaning what you say) talking about building walls, about taxing imports and inhibiting global manufacturing. This comes just one year after President Obama stood in the hallways of Hannover Messe and championed a global manufacturing economy. The United States would justifiably lead, but that also required trading partners committed to finding fair and free trade around the world.

As Obama said at the time, "During my time in office, we’ve boosted U.S. exports to Germany, and we’ve increased our bilateral trade by nearly 40% to a record $235 billion last year. German investment in the United States now supports more than 600,000 American jobs. And you’re selling more of your products to America as well. Last year, for the first time in decades, the United States became the top market for exports of German goods. So we need to build on this success. I want us doing even more business together, more trade, and creating more jobs for our people."

The message today is very different. We’ve talked not only of building walls, but of pulling up drawbridges and restricting the movement of people and products. None of this builds our economy or grows our employment opportunity. It limits our trading partners to 50 states and our economic growth to the edges of our oceans.

There’s no sense that this stance will grow jobs or improve the prospects for global manufacturing, and it sticks a dagger in the heart of the potential that IIoT has been promising for the last few years. It is snake oil, sold by a snake oil salesman whose own policies apparently don’t extend to the manufacture of a line of men’s clothing in Asia.

We should do better on regulations and policies that restrict businesses. There’s much to be done around creating a better tax environment for small and large businesses. Just a reasonable reduction in regulation and a fairer tax law could create a windfall for manufacturing owners and do so without limiting any decisions they’d want to make about where they want and need to manufacture.

But we cannot do any of this without better education of the next generation of workers and a sound global environment in which to work. And we won’t do it if the warm hand President Obama stretched out to the manufacturing world at Hannover Messe in 2016 is replaced with an iron fist.

There is an elephant in the room. How do you get rid of the elephant? As the old joke goes, one bite at a time.

Bob Vavra, content manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media,