Huff and Puff and Blow that Economy Down…
What is not to like about more US manufacturing? It is important to our economy, to national security and to the individuals needing jobs and purpose. A nation should be able to build the things that it needs. A hollowed out economy that is only exporting services is not a long term play.
But a revolution is not the solution. Shaming companies to come back is also not a simple anecdote. It took us over 20 years to dismantle our manufacturing prowess. We can’t bring it back overnight. Without some planning we will build a house of straw. We will alienate our trading partners. We will bring back jobs that we can’t fill because we don’t have trained workers. We will try to use the same processes and facilities we have always used and the result will be poor quality and expensive product. We will impact our economy because our goods will be more expensive. Finally, retaliation by other countries will slow down the exporting that we do today. The right way to bring back manufacturing is to consider all of the aspects of a strong foundation and to build a house out of brick. What will that entail?
- Focus – What kind of manufacturing is right for this country? Given our higher standard of living we will not find enough workers for low skill tasks. The best products for re-shoring can be manufactured using automation, are high value or are heavy or bulky. Those kinds of products don’t rely on low wage workers and they cost a lot to move around. If the market is here you can eliminate shipping costs by building here. We also should consider where we can bring a competitive advantage. If we have access to materials and other natural resources, design expertise or automation capability we can do a better job than the competition and build product for the US market and also successfully export. Examples of good products for US manufacturing are appliances, vehicles, expensive electronic devices, machinery, robots and construction materials. It also makes sense to build close to home when a product is difficult to build and contains a lot of intellectual property. The interaction between manufacturing and design engineering is critical during a fast ramp and doing that close to home has time to market advantage. Time is money and fast to market protects IP.
- Infrastructure – We need better roads and power and better access to human resource. State government officials in some locations are working on this. Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama are attracting more than their fair share of new manufacturing jobs because they have favorable policies, strengthening infrastructure and active government programs aimed at attracting companies. Each state needs to craft policies to attract the kind of industry that will be beneficial to the population.
- Prepare the Workforce – In a 60 Minutes interview Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, said that one of the reasons that Apple needs to build phones in China is that the US doesn’t have a trained manufacturing labor force. The obstacle is not so great. If we package training with job opportunity at a living wage, the workforce will be available. Apple can not afford much labor content with this model but automation is a way around that roadblock. Increased automation will generate the need for other skills that we currently lack in the US. We need more manufacturing savvy engineers. We have the best higher education system in the world and there are many excellent programs that can meet this need. Those programs train engineers for the whole world. We can harness that momentum for our own workforce through part-time, online or even full time degree or certificate programs that are sponsored by companies in need of talent. This is an investment worth making and where some profit should be directed.
- Government Support – Of course tax reduction is what comes to mind here and perhaps President Trump’s intention to increase the tax burden on companies importing goods will help fund education or infrastructure. But there are other ways our government can have a direct impact on a continuing manufacturing renaissance.
- Training program sponsorship or tax credits
- Increased community college support for practical apprenticeship type programs
- Higher education support in the form of manufacturing and technology research grants
- State or Federally sponsored manufacturing initiatives used to focus funds and research
- Increased vigilance for fair trade
- Logical and sustainable regulations that solve for both competitiveness and the environment.
- Leadership and Vision – When I worked with Canon, I was told that Canon just did not understand our actions. HP was making decisions for our stockholders. We were trying to minimize the tax burden and they felt that taxes were a patriotic duty. Losing jobs to China was a defeat and there was much debate prior to any movement of manufacturing. They believed that they could build the product with higher quality and with more process technology and therefore it would ultimately be less expensive. Perhaps we can’t turn public international companies into patriotic entities but with more visionary leadership and more action that drives innovation and competitiveness right here in the US, companies can find a win for US manufacturing and for stockholders. The win is there. It will take leadership to invest in factories, commit to a plan that isn’t easy to pull off in the short term and then execute with determination.
There is a path to solid manufacturing growth in the US. It isn’t a move back to the 1970’s. We won’t go back to what manufacturing looked like then but neither will the rest of the world. The new era of manufacturing will be lean and automated. It will require an educated workforce and a supportive government. We will need the willpower and the leadership at high levels in government and industry to take a stand and to chart a path to a successful win-win future where the consumer gets a good “Made in the USA” product at a competitive price.
“All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.” Benjamin Franklin
Let’s be Audacious.
- Smart Manufacturing takes advantage of data to drive processes, designs, build plans and quality checks.
- Automation lowers costs and increases quality.
- Additive Manufacturing helps us build product we couldn’t otherwise build and enables fast time to market.
- Lean Manufacturing optimizes resources, removes waste and increases visibility.
All of this is great stuff. Let’s embrace all and become Audacious Manufacturing. If you are audacious you are bold and daring. Manufacturing is often just the opposite. Manufacturing executives tend to be cautious and careful. We don’t brag. We let the results speak for themselves. Manufacturing people get the job done but we let the marketing people advertise and the sales people sell. It is time for the manufacturing community to be bold and brave and to market and sell what we can bring to the economy and the country. We can compete globally and are doing it in many sectors already.
As a young intern engineer, I modeled transmissions, wrote papers on transportation alternatives and developed engine combustion simulations, but nothing beat the time I spent working in the Pontiac, Michigan plant where GM trucks are built. That drove my decision to take a job in manufacturing after graduation. I love walking through a manufacturing plant where parts are assembled and products are tested and readied for shipment. Cars, computers, storage systems, networking systems, printers, construction materials, medical equipment: I’ve been to these factories around the world and get the same kick each time. Seeing these plants in the USA brings me even more joy but for many more reasons.
Manufacturing strengthens our economy, creates jobs at a faster rate than other sectors and keeps our creative juices flowing for new idea generation. It brings communities together and keeps us ready as a nation to protect our country. Manufacturing uses a broad set of talents and welcomes a diverse population into its employment. It generates supportive industries that supply parts and provide logistics.
If we as a country embrace smart, lean, automated, additive manufacturing and add a dash of audacity, we can indeed strengthen our manufacturing base in the USA. The manufacturing in this audacious new world can be the best internationally. We have the technology, resourcefulness and the capability to do it. We need to come together across party lines, economic strata and geographical areas to drive policy, education and consumer willpower.
Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
Sun Tzu; Art of War
I made the trade for a Ford Taurus. By then my little red Datsun 210 had traveled from California to New Hampshire. It had carried me through my masters degrees, my early career days, into a marriage and kids. The seat fabric had rotted and split. The paint finish was crackled and faded. A family of mice had decided to store dog food pellets in the fabric roof lining. (We have ever since stored dog food in metal cans!) But this car meant something to me and it was a hard possession to give up. But I needed a car that didn’t slip and slide in the snow and that carried me with a little more dignity to my engineering manager job. So I made the trade. It was fair. It was good.
These days, in the midst of isolationist leanings, there is a great deal of talk about fair trade. The treaties that were enacted over a decade ago are being blamed as the root cause for all of our economic woes and lack of full employment. The US has 14 trade agreements in effect with 20 countries. We are in the process of examining and likely will be rejecting an additional Asia-Pacific trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and are in negotiations with the EU regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). Why are these agreements in place and are they fair and good?
The argument for international trade agreements is that they reduce barriers to U.S. exports and protect U.S. interests and enhance the rule of law in partner countries. The reduction of trade barriers and the creation of a more stable and transparent trading and investment environment makes it easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to export their products and services. This is goodness if both parties have something valuable to exchange and if each side ends up satisfied with the arrangement. Right now in the US we are not satisfied. We have lost over 5M manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the century. Our annual trade deficit was $500B or 3% of the GDP last year. That money is used by foreign investors to buy real estate or businesses or other assets. But these stats don’t tell the whole complicated story. The complex story makes the solution complex. The WSJ covered this recently in an article on the Future of Manufacturing. If we close our borders to trade or if we heavily tax imports to slow down in the influx of goods, there are consequences.
- We export more services than we import to the tune of about $300B. If we slow imports we could slow exports of our service industry thus hurting those US businesses.
- If we tax imports of cheaper goods we are creating a regressive tax. In other words we will hurt the people with smaller incomes who can’t afford it.
- We could lessen the value of our currency making imports look more expensive but that again will be a regressive action, hurting the wrong people.
- Moving quickly could cause an economic backlash that could push the US into a recession.
None of the ideas above are easy to implement without repercussions. But we can take positive action to increase our competitiveness and move back to a positive trade balance. However, these ideas require leadership, partnership with government, some patience and a bit of altruism. We as a country seem to be short on those things right now.
- Measure the costs: Company executives should measure the full, true cost of off-shoring. Doing the math rather than just following the crowd could accelerate the trend to keep manufacturing in the US.
- Train workers: There is a gap between manufacturing workers needed versus available even today. This gap will increase as our baby boomers retire. We need to create training programs and apprenticeships like are available in Germany and other countries.
- Embrace Technology: There are ways to improve our competitiveness and the time is ripe. Additive manufacturing, Internet of Things (IoT) and collaborative robotics are ways to use our technical prowess to beat the competition. US universities have developed and progressed these capabilities and progressive companies are employing them to improve productivity and features. The government should encourage investments in manufacturing technology. US incentives for investments in factory automation and research lags behind our competition.
- Employ Lean and Agile Methodologies: Productivity in the US (GDP/hour worked) has increased year over year for 3 decades. In the first quarter of 2016 it actually decreased by .6%. We need to find ways of doing more with what we have. Lean for Manufacturing and Agile for Innovation are two proven ways to improve efficiency and speed up results.
- Create Manufacturing Ecosystems: Regional governments have been encouraging a resurgence of focused manufacturing capabilities. Examples are the growth of automotive manufacturing in the Southeast or capital machinery in the Midwest. These clusters are attracting the right kind of workforce, setting up supply chains and are working with regional governments to create workable tax schemes.
We will not rewind time to the days when you could provide for a family and retire on one assembly worker’s wages. But it is possible to generate a good living with the new jobs that are emerging. A robot technician’s salary is about $60K. A CNC programmer and operator earns about $40K. With the right kind of training and infrastructure we can revitalize manufacturing in the US and embrace good and fair trade once again.
Good and fair trade is within our reach. I gave up my Datsun with thoughts of better driving days to come. Similarly, we need to let go of the past and embrace a new manufacturing reality of automated factories building products the rest of the world will want to buy.
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. Barack Obama
This is not a political post. It is a call to personal reflection and action. Politicians and policies can help change the rules but we are the change agents in our companies. We have gutted our manufacturing prowess here in the US. We can blame trade agreements, tax burdens, short term quarterly reporting or politicians. But we also need to look at executive leadership. I am guilty. I’ve been a manufacturing executive during the biggest downturn in manufacturing…ever. Since the 90’s we have been shuffling manufacturing off-shore at an amazing rate. We have lost over 8M manufacturing jobs since the peak in 1979 with most moving to Asia since 1999. While this trend has slowed and there is some evidence of a reversal (~800K net increase in manufacturing jobs returning since 2010), it isn’t enough and we need to take action. The economics are just about there. What isn’t clearly showing in the numbers yet is the longer term benefit of having a return of the manufacturing base. I call this a trickle-up effect.
Trickle-up is not a new term but is new in this context. The trickle-up effect or fountain effect is an economic theory used to describe the combined demand of middle-class people to drive the economy. The theory is credited to John Maynard Keynes early in this century. Because each manufacturing dollar supports $1.33 in output from other sectors, it creates a trickle of economic value. Manufacturing has the largest multiplier of any other industry sector. Reshoring is a way to multiply jobs and economic value for our country. In addition there are intangible business benefits like increased creativity, faster time to market and increased customer responsiveness.
The late Andy Grove said in a 2010 New York Times essay, that what creates tech employment is scaling. “Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.” And now scaling is not happening in the US. The big tech legends like Intel, Tandem, HP, Sun, Cisco all scaled in the US when they started. Then we shifted manufacturing to Asia. Now, companies like Foxconn and Flextronics build our electronics products with millions of engineers, technicians and managers located in Asia. Let’s tune our innovation engine to include scaling. Tools such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robotics and IC manufacturing equipment are developed here. Let’s use them here.
If we agree that it is best for our country to bring these jobs back, how can we accelerate? We need to examine our decision criteria. In some cases the numbers are in our favor already. In other cases we need to take action as leaders to change the equation. Here are some practical actions to take:
- Calculate the total cost of manufacturing before deciding where to build. Labor costs have increased in Asia and have decreased in the US. Energy costs are competitive. In some parts of the country the real estate is less expensive and local governments are interested in attracting industry by offering tax breaks. Automation can be used to increase quality and increase efficiency further. The Reshoring Institute has developed a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) estimator that is free to use.
- Assign a value to time. Manufacturing close to a development team accelerates time to market. Learning quickly through rapid prototyping and iterating designs based on real manufacturing input will shorten your time to volume manufacturing and that in turn gives you an edge over the competition. If your product goes to market 1-2 months faster, what is that worth?
- Value Superior products. New technology needs an effective ecosystem in which technology accumulates. This happens between functional areas and between inventors and makers. We are missing an element of the creative process if we don’t include manufacturing in the cycle. It can be done with Asian partners but it often isn’t. Designers often don’t even see their product being built. They don’t interact with the builders of the product and they learn only through second-hand feedback.
- Consider the cost of quality. Ideally when there is a failure early in a product launch, it is quickly understood and either the product or the process changes to avoid that failure the next time. Tight feedback between design and build is the key to this rapid improvement process. Proximity matters. It doesn’t guarantee the close interaction between design and build but it takes down an obvious barrier.
- Lower inventory levels. Do this by moving manufacturing closer to the demand. This has been called “next-shoring” or “right-shoring”. Companies can respond to changing demand because there is less inventory on its way. The need to commit to next season’s fashion a year ahead of time goes away. Colors, fabric, quantity, sizes can change as demand is better understood. Inventory is expensive to store, ship, scrap and obsolete. The money saved by placing build close to demand can be taken to the bottom line. Companies like Nike, GE and Brooks Brothers are working on “next-shoring”.
- Train. One of the biggest gaps we have is the readiness of our workforce for this strengthening in US manufacturing. As business leaders we should be readying our workforce to take on manufacturing jobs through apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, internships, partnerships with local colleges and universities and funding for skills training.
Increasing our manufacturing base in the USA will trickle up jobs and prosperity. The jobs are good ones and they are multiplicative. Job creation matters. We have an financial obligation in business to sustain the society and infrastructure on which we depend. It isn’t altruistic. It is a long term fiduciary obligation. Our children will be better off. What kind of world will this be if we only have highly paid professionals designing products and the rest are unemployed or serving those who are highly paid? We need to take action to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. It is the right thing to do.
Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always, America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward. Thomas Edison