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4 essential solutions to bring manufacturing back

Posted by Bert Maes on April 12, 2010

About 25 manufacturing professionals and specialists are currently contributing to the LinkedIn discussion: “Can we bring the manufacturing back home? If so: how? If not: why?

What are they telling us?

Most people seem to agree that loss of our manufacturing is the single biggest threat to our economy. Service is not creating wealth. Only agriculture, mining (with oil and gas production) and manufacturing are, according to Sam Durbin.

Many contributors argue as well that we can’t fully count on government to solve our problems, as they tend to be too busy trying to figure how to win their next election. We tend to ask them to impose import duties, tariffs or taxes and even manipulate currencies. Penalizing might discourage people from buying goods outside the country and it might encourage companies to build and grow here. Or it might not…

Frank Stanbach and Sam Durbin both take an interesting broader view: history shows that the Chinese are not the problem. Jobs and industry always move to the cheapest and easiest manufacturing market.  In the 60s and 70s Japan and afterwards Korea and Taiwan started producing ‘junk’ products in large quantities, but they got better with higher quality products and the local standards of living raised, resulting in higher costs of production. Now India and China are the biggest and best at this game. But for how long?

The discussion presents some individual- and company-level solutions to strengthen our home manufacturing base:

  • As a consumer, we have to look in the mirror. We demand less expensive products. So we make our own companies suffer. At the individual level, we are responsible. If we’re going to try and turn around the manufacturing industry, we better support our ‘local’ economy and we better become more informed about the local goods and the companies we are doing business with, whether they have the same environmental, safety and labor standards.
  • We should create better innovative processes. We just have to be better, faster and cheaper than our competitors. But the costs involved in manufacturing here are holding us back. Labor laws, environmental and safety conditions, taxes and health care, all add significant costs and some costs are forcing us to turn to the world’s low cost producers.

    To drastically lower our costs we must look at all aspects of our manufacturing processes, including setup and overhead costs, timing and efficiency, modern technologies and materials, without forgetting the highest quality. It will take teamwork with inspirational leadership inside a company and collaboration in an alliance of firms to create processes that reduce costs and improve efficiency to make us more competitive and to bring back manufacturing.
  • Being more innovative means having better people. The source of better skills and better productivity is better education and better training. Our greatest resources for innovation are many young, independent, highly-skilled hands-on thinkers and creators. We can’t keep and grow our manufacturing if we can’t attract younger generations to our industry and if we keep forcing many of our schools to close their metal shops, Lowell Kenney stated.

    Key is the investment and involvement of  companies into local technical schools. We must help our young people get interested in ‘making things’, in becoming leaders in manufacturing.
  • Today’s decisions are virtually always based on costs, based on greediness, based on short term gains and profits. Instead of huge management bonuses, some people in the discussion suggest that we should turn that money back into the company based on longer term goals, through investments in new training and new technologies to improve quality, accuracy, and automation. The principle is simple: If your labor costs get too expensive, then automate…

    To be the industrial and innovative leader, we have to pay the costs of new technologies and the corresponding training, Lindsey Wack concludes.
  • More???

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10 Responses to “4 essential solutions to bring manufacturing back”

  1. Ed Neale said

    The problem is that all of the above still require some form of Government intervention at some level, whether it be full implementation of a policy or measure or devolution of authority to an enabling committee or body.

    The main enemy in the equation is short-termism. The development of the service economy in the UK was primarily driven by the quest for fast returns based on minimum investment in the shortest time possible – tantamout to cashing in the future for a short-term buck. Obviously the foolishness of this approach is still unfolding, but the trick now is for the manufacturing sector to regroup and re-tool for the future. The next challenge will be to convince the money-lenders that investing in the home economy is a safer long-term bet than a quick buck made in offshoring, which in itself will require a shift in mindset.

    This is where national governments should have a role, not just appreciating but also safeguarding the contribution of national manufacturing companies to domestic prosperity. In the UK, two areas that this would involve would be protecting prosperous national companies from offshore predatory bids and amending national employment legislation to make it harder for domestic production sites to be closed down and shifted overseas. The government should also make it harder for the financial markets to pursue short-term profit activities, particularly where they will or may impact on long-term national prosperity.

    • Bert Maes said

      Thank you, Ed, for joining the conversation. I appreciate your comment very much.

      You are right about the need for government. That’s why I often speech about the need for very creative thinking and permanent collaboration between education, governments and industry to bring manufacturing education to a higher level. BUT I would like to make the point that companies should not just wait for government support, but make their own hands dirty and work together with their area technical schools.

      I also fully agree with your view of ‘short-termism’, related to the financial markets. I read at that many banks are thriving again with new record profits. They are set to pay billions in management bonuses. But they are refusing to use your (taxpayer’s) money to lend to small businesses. That is killing a strong economic recovery. “What is the purpose of bailout, if banks don’t lend” and if there are still no rules to regulate financial institutions? Both banks and government are again focusing on short term, irresponsible earning… Manufacturing in our home economy and technical education are staying behind.

      • Ed Neale said

        Thanks for the reply Bert. Have been a keen reader of your blog and Tweets for a while and thought I’d participate.

        I agree entirely that companies should get more involved with schools. The importance of making things needs to be taught and emphasised from the very outset of a child’s education, and a future in manufacturing presented as an attractive career with real prospects.

        Such an approach would also help to get the engineering sector to ‘blow its own trumpet’. Despite engineering representing some of the very best moments in British history, many engineers in my own experience have seemed reticent in talking about what they do or in making it accessible to the wider public. perhaps this is a 5th step that’s needed in bringing manufacturing back to its rightful place at the table – getting engineers/manufacturers to promote the great things they do!

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  3. Ed Neale said

    Of course, the other problem is that governments, or the UK Government anyway, largely fail to understand manufacturing, which poses a problem where the creation and implementation of policies which impact on education, taxation, protectionist measures, etc are government-led.

    One way around this would be to create a government-level, but party independent, body comprised of a mixture of government ministers and manufacturing specialists (i.e. heads of actual businesses, manufacturing institutions, etc) which would decide (as opposed to just advising) on national industrial/business policy. This body would be tasked with the development and delivery of longer-term manufacturing strategy, with the national interest as its primary objective.

    The creation of such a body would have two immediate advantages:
    1. It would help to boost the importance of manufacturing as a nationla wealth-generating activity
    2. By representing the interests of manufacturing companies of all kinds, from small manually-focused enterprises through to large-scale automated operations, it would help to better enable the exchange of best practice methods and technologies

    • Bert Maes said

      Absolutely true, Ed. We have to start educating politicians… I have witnessed one presentation where teachers scared the hell out of local mayor in showing that the existence of mankind is at stake if we keep forgetting CNC technology in education. Their students even made small scale wind turbine showing the essential technology and advanced skills needed to create the green solutions to battle global warming.

      I find your ‘party independent body’ inspiring. Also in the UK, I’m sure, many organizations are doing outstanding work to promote the long-term value of the manufacturing field. The key will be to coordinate those different activities so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A committed cadre of people, in a body like you propose, could indeed streamline initiatives and could set the world-wide standard for manufacturing excellence.

      Bill Ford said it as well at COLLABORATION is key in turning around the perception of manufacturing. “And I think government and business have to form partnerships, which is not something that has traditionally happened in this country. We have enormous societal issues as we tackle things, like global warming and fuel independence, that are not going to get solved unless there is collaboration,” he says.

      Since you are a UK citizen,
      1: is manufacturing getting a priority in the upcoming General Elections programs?
      2: what do you think about the blog post: “What does UK Manufacturing need right now?”

  4. Ed Neale said

    Thanks for your feedback on the independent body idea. Many organisations are already doing good work as you pointed out – the trick is to get them to join forces and, moreover, to enable them to actually make a difference. In essence, the idea of having a representative body composed of people with expertise in different areas is very similar to the boards that run businesses – to me, it makes sense to run a country’s business affairs in the same way.

    It’s a telling point that one of the reports highlighted in your post ‘What does UK manufacturing need right now?’ is by James Dyson, one of our leading industrialists (although even he has been criticised for his decision to offshore some of his manufacturing activities.

    Manufacturing is indeed getting its fair share of the limelight in the upcoming General Elections, led largely by the Conservatives. The sector has even been focused in a positive light in various leading national newspapers, which is unusual in my experience. Of course, it remains to be seen whether any party is genuinely committed/able to deliver upon a manufacturing-focused manifesto, but at the very least it has helped to raise the profile of the sector and its contribution to long-term wealth creation.

    Re. your blog post ‘What does UK manufacturing need right now?’, would again agree with your points. However, there is one other things that’s also needed, namely the confidence amongst parents to advise their children to work in the manufacturing sector and to see manufacturing as a sector with a future.

    The point you make about societal/environmental issues and challenges is also a good one. Past advice on minimising mankind’s footprint has tended to focus on people changing their behaviour – it’s my belief that, whilst people do have a role to play in helping achieve improvements, it’s unlikely, even naive, to believe that most will do so at the sacrifice of their standard of living. Technology has a massive accompanying role to play in helping to achieve improvements whilst at the very least minimising any potential sacrifice in standards of living. The challenge is on producing the next generation of engineers that can develop these technologies.

    • Bert Maes said

      About the elections and manufacturing, one of my UK business partners said it very juicy:

      “We’re approaching a General Election in the UK, so manufacturing is no longer the funny looking girl with thick glasses. Suddenly, she’s the hot date; getting invited to all the best parties. If it plays its cards right, it may even get laid. This [whitepaper is the latest ode-to-a-lost-love from the Conservative party, written by Britain’s coolest engineer: James Dyson. To think, we once built bridges and ships. I wonder what Isambard Kingdom Brunel would make of a Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner? It would be nice if some of this whitepaper actually makes it in to policy.” (Matt Bailey, MBMC – International Press & Publicity,

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