From the Shop Floor — The Week in Manufacturing (9/23/2011)

From the Department of Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: tire giant Bridgestone has announced it will invest a total of $1.2 billion in its various North American manufacturing and distribution operations over the next few years.

Global economists use something they call the purchasing manager’s index (PMI) to determine the relative strength of an individual economy.  And the critical number for them is a PMI of 50.  Anything above 50 suggests growth; anything below it suggests decline.   This September, for the third month in a row — fueled in large measure by a decrease in orders from the U.S. and Eurozone countries — China’s PMI failed to crack 50; something that would have been hard to imagine just six months ago.

ZDNet blogger Tom Foremski frames a fascinating debate, which has in one camp people like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and in another people like Intel founder and chairman Andy Grove.  At its core, the question is; Can America continue to lose commodity manufacturing jobs to offshore locations, while pinning its hopes for job growth on start-ups, particularly those in the tech sector? Would love to hear your thoughts on this one.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, the Democratic chair of the Joint Economic Committee, recently presided over a hearing titled, Manufacturing in the USA: How U.S. Trade Policy Offshores Jobs.  The good senator sat down with CNBC blogger John Carney this week and offered up some interesting (and relatively candid) thoughts on the subject.

While China continues to clean our clocks in the deployment of a technology first developed in this country — namely solar power — two news items this week indicated at least a hint of willingness on our part to start counter-punching.  Two photovoltaic companies Schletter and Saint Gobain Solar, announced plans to open manufacturing facilities in — where else? — Arizona.

No sooner had Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby announced his company was looking at building a new auto plant in the U.S., that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown started lobbying for it to be placed in the Buckeye State.

And on the topic of cars, it’s interesting to note that GM and China have entered into a joint venture to manufacture electric cars.  What’s interesting about the deal is that it gives GM access to a technology currently being dominated by the Chinese; next-generation batteries.

Some three decades ago, Brazil sought to wean itself off foreign oil by becoming 100% self-sufficient, using renewable and domestic energy sources.  Mission accomplished.  Then, the country sought to transform itself from South America’s leading importer of food to its leading exporter.  Mission accomplished.  Now the burgeoning industrial giant is looking to replace its millions of imported trucks and cars with Brazilian-made ones, and China, for one, is taking note.

Speaking of China, according to one report, since Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. has lost 2.8 million manufacturing and technology jobs to China, a big chunk of them in California.

And finally, I’m not sure to what extent you’re aware of two of the most exciting new trends in product design and prototyping; namely, cloud computing and 3D printing.  But if you’ve never paid much attention to either, you should.  In fact, here’s a quick but fascinating snapshot of the latter.

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