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Embracing Failure

Captain AmericaWe’re a nation of winners.  I get that.

If you’re not first, you’re last.  I get that too.

And failure is not an option.  Heck, I get that as well.

In fact, I get it all.  As a country, if not an economic power, we Americans have a deep-rooted, if not pathological aversion to anything remotely resembling failure.  As if failure is some form of creepy cultural, social and even moral disorder.

Failure stains us.  It brands us.  Failure determines that the world will forever see us as, somehow, whatever the opposite of a champion is.  (Oh yeah, a loser.)

Fear of Failure 1But what if I told you that some of the most breakthrough products of the 20th Century resulted from abject and unconditional failure?  That’s right.

For example, at one point 100 years ago or so, a health-conscious dietician who had spent months trying to come up a palatable breakfast gruel from a rather unappetizing blend of wheat and oats. And having failed miserably to develop any mixture with even trace amounts of commercial appeal, one morning in his kitchen he spilled some of his experimental breakfast glop onto the scalding hot stove in his test kitchen, at which point the drops immediately turned to flakes.  The funny thing was, that foul smelling batter he was working on tasted far better in flake form than it ever did in liquid form.  And with that, an American breakfast institution called Wheaties was born.

Fear of Failure 3And that’s just one example.  Such iconic and (at times historic) inventions as bubble wrap, post-it notes, penicillin and even the Slinky all share similar backstories, as some blend of failure and good fortune seemed to smile on the developers and decree that marketplace magic — poof — would happen.

Heck, why do you think they call it WD-40?  Not for any scientific reason, I can assure you.  But because before stumbling on the formula for what would prove to be a miracle in a blue and yellow can, the scientists who developed that lubricant tried and failed 39 other times.

WD-40Look, I’m two things, and for as long as I can remember have always been those two things.  I’m an independent manufacturer.   And I’m a small businessman.

And inasmuch, I have lived my life in constant fear of failure.  If (either as a small shop owner or a small businessman) I had ever bet precious capital on a product that tanked or ever completely retooled due to a miscalculation, my shop might have closed its doors forever.

But these days everything’s changed.  And I mean everything.

Fear of Failure 4Technology has given us manufacturers a line of credit we’ve never had at our disposal before, freeing us once and for all from what had always been an almost crippling fear of failure.  Such technological game-changers as cloud computing, 3D design, and, above all, additive manufacturing have reduced our risk to a fraction of what it had been; which has allowed us to experiment as never before and take chances we never dreamed possible.

Fear of Failure 2Sure, the marketplace is more voracious than ever, not to mention exponentially larger, vastly more complex, and infinitely more fickle.  And sure, technology is changing the rules almost as quickly as we can learn them.

But the one thing that has always limited manufacturing as a sector, namely our unifying fear of failure, has been tempered, if not tamed altogether.

risk taking 1Now, the challenge for us is to do something with all our newfound testicle fortitude. Without drilling too deeply here, let me just say we must really try to do three things.

We must learn to innovate and take chances as never before.

We must emotionally get past our sector’s maddening fear of failure and its often archaic preconceptions of the marketplace, while resolving in the future to innovate incessantly and constantly seek better ways to produce better products.

risk taking 2But, above all, we must embrace the notion that, while we may now have a safety net beneath us, we also – for the first time ever – have no ceiling above us. And, inasmuch, if there was ever a time for shop owners, entrepreneurs, industrial visionaries and hands-on risk-takers from coast to coast to truly reach for the stars, it is now.

Because, for the first time in my life, my fellow manufacturers, I’m delighted to say failure is at long last an option.

3D Printing 2.0

3D printing 1There’s a good bet that by now you’ve started to wrap your brain around the, heretofore, almost otherworldly concept called additive manufacturing – commonly referred to in most lay circles as 3D printing.

In the version of that next-generation forging I’d bet is still floating around inside your head, a machine captures a digital image of an object and then adds layer after thin layer of synthetic glop onto itself until, when it’s completed, an entirely new product – and an exact replica of the original – is produced.

3D printing 2Well, if a team of engineers and scientists in Europe has its way, later this year that brand of 3D printing you’ve recently tried to come to grips with will prove to be just one more example of yesterday’s news.  Today, your see, there is an entirely new breed of additive manufacturing being developed in the world, and even in its earliest stages (and even in its roughest form) it is, just maybe, a microcosm of the very direction manufacturing will soon be taking.

Just over a week ago in the Netherlands, the principals at a startup specializing in 3D printing announced their intention to erect an entirely functional pedestrian footbridge across a small canal in the heart of Amsterdam using only two of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of the post-modernist’s imagination; robotics and additive manufacturing.

3D printing 3That’s right; not only will an entire bridge be built using 3D printing, but it will be built without any human interaction whatsoever, either at the construction or forging level.

But that’s only part what is so next-generation, so earth shaking and, ultimately, so newsworthy about this announcement.  Because the bridge will be built using a process called MX3D printing (which is also the name of the company), instead of layering synthetic resin onto itself to form a replica structure, it will be built by layering thin sheets of molten metal which, when hardened, will result in a fully operational and entirely safe metal span across the water.

What’s more, the robot doing the work is being developed to craft objects from any angle, rather than simply along a horizontal plane – which is now the case. As molten metal will flow through the robot’s nozzle, it will quickly set, which will allow a robotic arm to produce straight lines, spirals or any other shape for that matter, out of thin air.

So what’s the lesson for those of us with one foot in this new world and one foot in the old?  Heck, you name it.

If you’re an independent shop or factory owner, or even an executive with a larger manufacturing firm, you’d better see the writing on the wall and plan/budget accordingly.

If you’re a shop worker, or someone just entering the job market, you should read the tea leaves and realize that the next new wave of jobs will be entirely different than the jobs that exist today, and that rather than railing against robots, you might consider talking to your boss about getting trained to monitor, service and maintain them.

And finally, if you’re a designer or engineer, you might consider putting away many of your old design tools and wake up to this next generation of 3D product design, computer modeling and almost limitless possibilities.

Either way, my friends, whether we choose to get on board or not, the world many of us grew up in, and the one we have always known, continues to change at a staggering rate.

And like it or not, the next move is ours.

On the Campaign Trail, What’s in a Word?

rhetoric 8When you think about it, the world can turn on a single word.  Perceptions can change.  Expectations can rise and fall.  And realities can be shaped forever.

Consider; in the recent standoff between police and residents in Baltimore which led to days of unrest, shuttered stores, and a Major League ballgame played in a completely empty stadium, for the first time (maybe ever) those covering an event began questioning (and openly debating) the words they were using to describe it.

Was it rioting?

Was it demonstrating?

Or was it civil disobedience?

rhetoric 3Because, use the first term and the participants become a lawless, feral throng of lawbreakers.

Use the second and they’re seen not unlike a bunch of sign wielding union members demanding higher wages or better working conditions.

But use the third and everything changes.  Suddenly those involved are no longer rabid, uncontrolled and primal.  Nor are they acting merely out of a sense of professional duty.  They’re principled, thoughtful, and resolute, while exercising a right many watching or reading the news hold dear themselves.

That is why, for all we talk about the death of the printed word, the specific words our political leaders, reporters and news anchors use to define current events remain, arguably, the most important factor in determining how those events will be subsequently viewed by the public.

rhetoric 1Why bring this up?  Because, dear readers, once again it’s election season.

Once again the language of propaganda will be in full force and full-scale deployment by ambitious candidates, who will use language not to clarify issues, but cloud them.

And once again presidential hopefuls from Maine to Hawaii will be coming out of the woodwork with juicy words to try to fan the flames of public passion.

And of all those words set to be bandied about, none will be any more newsworthy or suggestive than the most salacious of them all.

rhetoric 5Jobs. The granddaddy of all contemporary stump speech buzzwords.

And no  jobs this election season promise to be any sexier or any more attention-getting than – you guessed it – manufacturing jobs.

But don’t buy it.  As I’ve detailed countless times, a corresponding spike in jobs has not accompanied this manufacturing renaissance we’re enjoying.  Yes, there have been jobs created. But they’re not the type many associate with manufacturing.

rhetoric 6They are not the mindless, tedious and repetitive cog-like functions of your father’s factory days.  To the contrary, in fact.

In today’s manufacturing, the physical act of molding, forging and assembling products is often being performed by precise, task-specific and highly calibrated machines.  That’s, in fact, the main reason for this renaissance.

But the politicians won’t mention that because it doesn’t support their narrative.

rhetoric 4The jobs being created, you see, are not only significantly smaller in number than a generation ago (albeit with far greater factory output), they’re more demanding and require a much greater degree of skill, expertise and training.

These days, in other words, you can’t drop out of high school and just walk into a job servicing precision factory equipment.  And you can’t sit home, unemployed and watching Judge Judy and then suddenly find yourself qualified for one of the exciting (but challenging) next-generation jobs now being created.

rhetoric 2That’s the part politicians won’t talk about.

Mario Cuomo once said we campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.  My friends, this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls is about to put on its Sunday best and start filling the skies with political poetry about his or her commitment to create jobs – especially manufacturing ones.

But don’t buy it.

Manufacturing jobs can happen; but not because some politician made them happen.  They can only happen when politicians work with manufacturers to create an economic climate in which companies large and small can take root, grow and prosper.

rhetoric 9They can happen when a country trains its workers, not for the industrial jobs they lost decades ago, but for the ones that are being created by seismic changes in the manufacturing processes of today

You want politicians to speak the truth this election?  You want them to spell out exactly where they stand on key issues like the economy, unemployment or our shrinking middle class?  Demand they use the right words.

rhetoric 10Instead of jobs, let them spell out how they’re going to support entrepreneurs and enterprising young business minds to help them spin their dreams into realities.

Instead of jobs, let them explain how they plan to train workers with 20th Century skills to compete in a 21st Century job market.

And instead of jobs, let them detail how they’re going to help companies like mine – relatively small shops with big ideas, but only a handful of people and a finite amount of resources – compete against global competitors who often have the advantage of government price supports, cheap labor and little or no regulation.

Business fraud

It’s presidential election season, my friends.  It’s open season for the hearts and minds of America.  And it’s that time during which words, not actions, will once again go a long way toward determining who will be our next president.

Let’s just try to make sure that, when it comes to those words, the people doing the campaigning are using the right ones.