Manufacturing's future: Punctuating the discussion

I'll be moderating a discussion at National Manufacturing Week in suburban Chicago on Sept. 26. We'll talk about “The Future of Manufacturing.” It's a pretty weighty topic, but drinks will be served, so I think we'll get through it just fine. Any discussion about the future of manufacturing depends how you punctuate that phrase, and how that phrase gets punctuated depends on who you...


I'll be moderating a discussion at National Manufacturing Week in suburban Chicago on Sept. 26. We'll talk about “The Future of Manufacturing.” It's a pretty weighty topic, but drinks will be served, so I think we'll get through it just fine.

Any discussion about the future of manufacturing depends how you punctuate that phrase, and how that phrase gets punctuated depends on who you're having the discussion with.

The Future of Manufacturing? Most people who use a question mark these days are those pundits (and the occasional presidential candidate) who want to blame manufacturing's malaise on (pick one) NAFTA, cheap foreign labor, immigration policy, taxes, Washington, a failure in education, currency manipulation or the bogeyman. Granted, the bogeyman doesn't get mentioned directly, but it has to be someone else's fault, right?

The Future of Manufacturing! In fairness, most people who are that excited about manufacturing these days would have to be guilty of what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan would call “irrational exuberance.” Energy prices are high and the labor pool is shrinking. We no longer corner the market on innovation and skill %%MDASSML%% not to mention hard work. The world has caught up in many cases, passed us in others and shows no signs of slowing down.

The Future of Manufacturing… leads you to wonder what's next. That's certainly one of the points I plan to make at the discussion on Sept. 26. The future depends on answering so many of the questions and replacing exuberance with realism and a rededication to hard work and bright ideas.

There's no shortage of either, but neither is there the hell-bent-for-leather fervor for it in manufacturing. The easy solution is to point elsewhere for the cause rather than seeking the solution.

Sure, labor is cheaper other places. Look at toy recalls and tainted food to understand the additional cost sometimes associated with cheap labor. Look at the total cost of manufacturing %%MDASSML%% getting the product from where it is made to where it is used %%MDASSML%% and you find the margins are measured in pennies and not dollars.

Sure, federal policies have had an impact, but issues such as immigration and taxes have been with us for decades. Through those decades, when we've worked hard and innovated, we've succeeded, and when we haven't, we've slipped behind. If you're going to tout a free market system to the rest of the world, you'd better be prepared when you get beaten at your own game.

Where will we be in three years? Your responses to our research study, which will also be discussed at our presentation, give us some insight. We'll get more insight from our panelists. But the future doesn't belong to a large group, and it won't be decided by talking about. It is up to each manager, each team and each manufacturer to make the future better. And since the future never really arrives, there's no time like the present to start.


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