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In U.S. Manufacturing Small is the New Black

small is the new blackI couldn’t help to be struck by the news this past week that General Electric is divesting itself of what, as it turns out, is the seventh largest bank in the country, GE Capital. Apparently, the higher ups at GE have determined it is better to do business with a bank as opposed to actually, you know, being a bank.

But that isn’t what struck me.

small is the new black 3It’s that, according to certain analysts, the buyers who will eventually line up for little pieces of GE Capital may not be the usual suspects (who, of course, would have the ability to come in a gobble up everything in one fell swoop). They may not be, in other words, the J.P. Morgan Chases and Bank of Americas of the world doing the buying, but a number of smaller, more nimble bank groups; along with a number of smaller private equity firms looking to cherry pick strategic, undervalued GE Capital assets for their own portfolios.

Couple that with what many of the same analysts see as a movement in the sector to reduce risk and minimize exposure, and you can see how the more consolidated the banking industry is becoming, the more it is rewarding (and maybe even spawning) smaller, more nimble, more market driven and more privately held institutions.

small is the new black 2It’s not unlike what Herb Kelleher and his lean, mean, fightin’ machine, Southwest Airlines, did to the airline industry a while ago, or what hyper-efficient and more user-friendly video alternatives like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are doing to the lumbering, status quo-loving and only nominally responsive cable behemoths like Comcast and Time Warner, leaving in their wake an ever-growing trail of so-called consumer “cord cutters.”

I’ve been talking about it for four years now, but what continues to happen to the rest of the industrial world has been a big part of the reason why U.S. manufacturing continues to experience such a remarkable turnaround and such an amazing reversal of fortunes.

small is the new black 4Sure, technology and automation have been key to our sector’s renaissance, as have more realistic worker salaries, smarter logistics and a deeper appreciation for nearness-to-market. But never underestimate the importance of the shift from a relatively few gigantic, sprawling “mother ship” factories that once dotted the landscape to the tens of thousands of smaller, nimbler and far more market-focused ones that have risen from their ashes.

Orange is the new black? Hardly. In U.S. manufacturing (and just maybe U.S. banking), it’s small. It’s efficient. And it’s nimble.

Net Neutrality and You

net neutrality 1I have been writing about this current (and amazing) renaissance in American manufacturing for years, and how, even as you read this, the sector we grew up is changing forever.

And yet I’m still amazed at how walls continue to crumble around us; between countries, between cultures, between markets, between corporations, and between sectors.

net neutrality 2The latest example of a wall crumbling at our feet is something called “net neutrality,” a concept long thought to be an issue only impacting the telecommunications sector.

In and of itself, net neutrality is maybe one of the most boring subjects since cell mitosis, tax law and first-year algebra.  It is the concept, you see, behind the widely held belief that since so many facets of business these days are Internet-reliant, and so much critical data is being transmitted daily over publicly funded networks, the Internet should remain, much like a public highway, an open-access thoroughfare that does not discriminate for (or against) any one lawful user.

Pretty boring, huh?

net neutrality 6But you should get to know net neutrality, and you truly should start to form an opinion on it.

Why?

Because so much of your business – so much of our business as manufacturers and global entities – is now based on the Web.

net neutrality 4Think about the ways that web-based services have become part of our lives in ways they were not so even a half a generation ago.

How we communicate with our existing employees; the manner with which we recruit new ones; how we submit bids, or monitor global competition; how we use the cloud for data storage and high-level computing; how we design new products and share sensitive information with divisions and sub-contractors across the globe; all of that stuff is Internet-based, and as such falls under the purview of the FCC.

net neutrality 5And the exact same thing can be said of our competition.

Understand, the rules governing net neutrality were first drawn up decades ago by the FCC and have been tweaked a number of times by that federal regulatory agency, most recently this past month.

net neutrality 8Understand too that many GOP leaders are now unhappy with those rules, thinking that they are going to have a “chilling effect” on investment in new technologies and that they’ll somehow stifle innovation, entrepreneurialism and job growth, and that those very same leaders are considering taking the FCC to court to get them overturned.

net neutrality 9And understand as well that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has already come out strongly against the FCC’s most recent take on net neutrality, using the same coded language about a “chilling effect” that organizations opposed to regulation have always dusted off at times of pending regulation.

Look, I’m not saying you should be for the net neutrality rules, or against them. But I am saying you need to form an opinion, and you need to net neutrality 2become conversant with the issue — if only because your business, your competition, and the future demand you should.

Because, like it or not, while we may still be in manufacturing, the walls around what we’ve always defined as such continue to crumble.

(BTW, Let me share with you two videos, both made last year, at which point the FCC’s proposed rule changes included the provision of an Internet “fast lane” for those wishing to pay for it; a proposal which — thanks in large part to the first of these two — came crashing to the ground in wave of public outcry.)


Lost in Space?

Ceres 2I’m certain you don’t know this, but late last week a NASA probe called Dawn began what it many ways will be the final chapter of the Space Age as we know it.

Dawn, a remarkable little craft about the size of an AMC Pacer (or a city bus with its solar panels fully deployed), helped in the study of Mars, gave scientists key data about a potentially significant asteroid called Vesta, and will conclude its seven-year mission in the weeks ahead by shooting, orbiting and sending Cereshome images of Ceres, a relatively close-by celestial body recently re-categorized as a “dwarf planet.”

Why should this matter? Well, maybe it doesn’t; at least not on a literal level.

Oh, I suppose it would be nice to find out if, as scientists believe, that Ceres has, much like the Earth, its own atmosphere and its own gravitational pull.

DawnI suppose too it would be nice to know if the dwarf plant has large bodies of water, as it appears, and if so, what the makeup of all that water is.

I suppose too it would be interesting to discover the origin of those two glowing haloes of bright white scientists see smack dab in the center of Ceres.

And, finally, I guess it would be pretty cool to get one step closer to answering the two questions that have always fueled the study of the cosmos: where did we come from and where are we going?

MercuryBut if you’re not interested in such things, with the conclusion of Ceres’ mission, which should come in about four months, the dynamic and often heroic Space Age of the past 55 or so years will unofficially end. And that will be pretty much it.

Oh, NASA will still be around. It’ll still be gobbling up a relatively small fraction of our federal budget (less that ½ of 1%). And the organization will still be making occasional headlines and stealing moments here and there on CNN as it explores rock-star planets like Saturn and Mars.

But NASA will, in large part, only be digging deeper in places it already knows exist. It will be exploring, in other words, the known.  Meanwhile, what we will be losing is what has always defined the Space Age; the dogged pursuit of the unknown.

Tom SwiftAs more and more of us become concerned only with what we can see, touch and wrap their brains around, and the more so many of us continue to turn our backs on science and the scientific method, the more this country will start abandoning what is, arguably, our single greatest and most defining strength.

Look, I know budgets are tight. I know troubles like ISIS, failing schools, and climate change seem far more pressing and infinitely more urgent. But by slowly sun-setting man’s exploration of space, and by continually chipping away at NASA’s budget, ignoring its accomplishments and, in some cases, demonizing the science that fuels it, we’re setting ourselves up for paying a steeper and far dearer price.

That’s why I am writing this today. Because as a child of Tom Swift books, Lost in Space, Star Wars and Apollo missions, and a kid who cut his teeth on Reach for the Starsscience fiction, and one who shared a generational fascination with that which always seemed to lie just beyond our grasp, I can’t help but feel we’re losing something by accepting what we know and, somehow, being OK with that.

I can’t help but feel that as a country that has always stood in pursuit of discovering the next great thing, if we stop funding, supporting and reporting on space exploration, we’ll be losing something fundamental to who we’ve always been and what we’ve always strove to do.

America will stop being – in both a literal and figurative sense – a people, an economy, a nation that dares to defy accepted thinking and, more importantly, dares to reach for the stars.