What Manufacturing Needs from Trump

Trump 1Let’s forget the rancor of the campaign. Let’s forget the hate-speech, the xenophobia, the simplistic war cries, and the negative passions both candidates managed to trigger. Let’s just get past those things.

Because, whether half the country likes it or not, we’ve all chosen Donald Trump our next president.

So, what does that mean? Well, the ripple impact of a Trump presidency remains to be seen, and will have to play itself out over the course of the next four years.

But I do know this, there are two forces at work in today’s marketplace that are way, way, way bigger – not to mention more powerful – than any single politician, regardless of his political ideology or country.

Trump 7And those two forces are these: globalization and technology.

What’s more, despite what Trump may have promised on the campaign trail, those two things are simply not going away. Not now. Not ever.

As manufacturers, you and I have felt (and been impacted by) by both for decades. Not only has the global market created unexpected (and often unforeseen) competition, but it’s also taken countless manufacturing functions that used to be the sole purview of this country and off-shored them to dozens of raw and even primitive economies abroad.

But at the same time, that globalization has also increased our potential market, and done so exponentially. What’s more, it’s opened wide the global market for American-made goods and brand names – things that remain wildly in-demand in the two biggest and fastest growing of those economies, China and India.

And from a technology perspective, the development of game-changers like 3D printing, computer modeling, robotics, and automation have revolutionized our segment and left those upstart economies scrambling. That’s why so many industries experts said were lost forever, have started migrating back.

Trump 3Manufacturing, in other words – despite what the president-elect might have us believe – is in remarkably good shape and well-positioned for the future.

But that’s not to say we in the industrial sector don’t need at least two things from the next administration. And they’re two things we need right now.

The first is tax reform that make sense, not some kissin’ cousin to the flawed “trickle down” theory of the 1980’s.

The new administration must understand that, while American manufacturing is in the midst of a very-real comeback, what’s emerging from the ashes is a new and improved type of manufacturer. Today’s industrial job-creators are not a few bloated, smokestack-belching mega-corporations with facilities the size of urban neighborhoods, but hundreds, if not thousands of smaller and far more efficient shops, just like mine.

Trump 6We are the face of manufacturing today, and we’re the ones who remain our best hope at reenergizing America’s middle class. We’re the hirers and income-creators that Trump should really be trying to help, not the elite one-percenters in all those well-appointed corner offices in places like Wall Street. Because tax incentives for nimble and market-responsive manufacturers will pay dividends in not simply more American jobs, but better (and better-paying) ones as well.

What’s more, we’d then be incentivized to invest in state-of-the-art upgrades and the kind of capital-intensive technology that will allow us to stay one-step ahead of our foreign competition.

Secondly, industry needs an almost epic overhaul of our national infrastructure.

Trump 5As a proud and long-standing member of the industrial sector I can assure you, there is no segment of the economy more reliant on an efficient and well-maintained supply chain than ours. A strong supply chain is our lifeblood, and, by extension, this economy’s. And for that reason, it is essential we keep the cost/headache of transporting, shipping and receiving raw materials and finished goods to a minimum.

And that is becoming harder to do the more our roads crumble and the more our bridges decay, our pipes corrode, our airport computer systems crash, and our power grids stay wedded to aging, archaic technology.

For years I’ve been calling for the Obama Administration to invest trillions and build for this country a state-of-the-art, 21st Century infrastructure – both physical and electronic. And to its credit, that administration has invested in what, to this point, has been a small but steady step in that direction.

Trump 9But we need more. We need a public works project the likes of which this country’s not seen since the days of FDR and the New Deal, and the likes of which no Republican has commandeered since the days of Civil War Reconstruction.

Such a program would give thousands of Americans jobs. It would restore worker pride and stimulate the economy by getting money moving up and down the food economic chain. And it would ensure that every sector of the U.S. economy could keep abreast of what, in terms of today’s global supply chain, has has become the new normal.

Trump 8Yes, Donald Trump did his ever-loving best to divide us for 18 months. Yes, he made a lot of promises that are going difficult to keep under the harsh glare of his new job. And yes, he has a lot of mending of fences and a lot of re-building of bridges to do before this country can truly heal its still-open wounds.

But, believe me when I say this; the best way to start rebuilding so many of those metaphorical bridges is to start rebuilding a few hundred or so real ones. #

To see the full report and learn more about what is being called the Mississippi “Golden Triangle” of manufacturing, visit the 60 Minutes site here.

Manufacturing 4.0: The Ground Level Perspective

4.0 aIt reminds me a little of the old “Summer of Love” in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco when I was a kid, or the grunge music scene in Seattle in the 90s; two hot, trendy and newsworthy movements that by the time the academics had gotten around to naming them, by the time the media had begun covering them, and by the time they’d wormed their way into mainstream awareness, those at their epicenter had long-since moved on.

“It,” of course, is Manufacturing 4.0. And “it” is where our sector is supposedly headed, to an era (if not an entire environment) all-but devoid of human input in the process of designing, molding, shaping, forging and distributing durable goods, an era in which computers, software and sophisticated machinery promise to do something like 90% of the work.

4.0 bNow, given that I’m a small manufacturer, and given that the workers in my modest but still-humming shop come to work these days with this trendy, media-darling of a concept hanging over their heads (and, to be sure, their livelihoods) ominously like a razor-sharp, job-killing guillotine, I decided a week or so ago to have a sitdown over pizza with a few of my employees to get a sense of what Manufacturing 4.0 means to them and to gauge what, if any, angst they may harbor over it.

What I discovered in the course of that extended lunch both surprised and delighted me. Where I expected to find at least trace elements of denial, I found a universal and very palpable sense of anticipation. And where I expected to find some level of fear and trepidation about job security, I found excitement; real honest-to-goodness fervor over American manufacturing’s (and, by extension, my company’s) possibilities for growth.

4.0 cI suppose much like the Summer of Love and the Grunge scene, just as the idea was finally making its way into polite conversation on Main Street, U.S.A., so many of those who represent the heart and soul of U.S. industry had long since moved on from Manufacturing 4.0 – and, I’m happy to report, gladly so.

4.0 dUsing those few employees as a barometer, emotionally and intellectually anyway, whatever anxiety U.S. factory workers may have once had about Manufacturing 4.0 seems to have been more than supplanted by an eagerness to work in a modern, efficient and technology-driven environment. Granted, those eating pizza and sharing their thoughts with me that day were some of my longest-termed and highest-skilled workers, but to a man they agreed they couldn’t wait to work in a shop whose capacity and output were going to be defined not by our sector’s traditional limitations, but by the latest and most cutting edge advances in industrial technology.

They’d moved on from Manufacturing 4.0, in other words. In fact, one of them even said he had already started imagining “Manufacturing 5.0” in which shop machines would not only do the bulk of the work, but would also have Artificial Intelligence and actually learn as they operate, becoming much more efficient and far less wasteful in the process.

4.0 eA few of the other notable things mentioned that day over pizza:

  • Manufacturing 4.0 is going to be a significant change, no doubt, one employee told me. But it may not be as big a leap as either the broad deployment of the CNC turning centers in the 90’s or the universal adoption of the MTConnect standard in 2009.
  • One told me the broad use of standardized machines and the integration of software has had a huge impact on productivity and efficiency, which is making his job easier and far less stressful. What once took three operators and five machines, he said, now takes one operator and one machine. It allows him to do more and focus on planning and long-term strategizing.
  • 4.0 fWhat’s more, another one added, from a retooling or new-job perspective, thanks to our the latest generation of software what had once taken almost three days can now take as little as a few hours.
  • One said that, while certain low-skill jobs may disappear, better paying and more secure jobs will be created by manufacturing’s increased reliance on technology. What’s more, he added, a different type of worker is going to be attracted to factory work. Where the industrial sector once countless drew linear-thinking, task-oriented people, the level of automation along with our growing reliance on computers and cutting edge software is going to entice conceptual thinkers, bright young technical minds, and even gamers.
  • One employee told me he thought that the move to automation might actually be harder on management than the rank and file since it’s all going to be about making the right investment in the right technologies. You don’t want to be investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of precious capital in manufacturing’s version of the Betamax player or the Blackberry.
  • Finally, one said, even though people all talk about Manufacturing 4.0 bringing about these “radical” changes in the manufacturing process, the simple fact is that’s not how things ever seem to play out in real life. They constantly change to be sure, but they do so at a rate often so slow and steady that it’s not until you look back a year or two later that you realize the extent to which things (and how you do your job) have evolved.

4.0 gIf you’re in management or a shop owner and have not yet had a sitdown with those on your shop floor about technology, robotics, automation and the rapidly changing demands on the American factory worker, I urge you to do so, and soon. You may realize, as I did, it’s not them who need to get up to speed. It’s you.

What’s more, you’ll likely discover a level of anticipation and excitement on their part that may just do much more than comfort you.

It may just inspire you.


A version of this blog post originally appeared in August/September 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.

Manufacturing 4.0: A Rising Tide to Float All Boats

MFG 4.0gWe’ve heard the horror stories. Manufacturing 4.0 will be a nightmare. It will destroy all that’s good about American industry (if not our country itself and our vibrant , working class); all in the name of progress.  And it will be an industrialized version of some creepy Orwellian vision in which workers are rendered unneeded by an army of heartless and soulless (but not mindless) robots, and where – fueled by increased production and slashed costs – both unemployment and corporate profits rocket skyward.

But I’m not buying those tales of worker doom and despair, any of them. And not by a long shot.  Because more than fear, hyperbole and wild conjecture, I believe in something far more compelling and something with a much more compelling track record for predicting future behavior. I believe, as much as anything else, in the tried-and-true wisdom of the marketplace.

MFG 4.0I believe (and have been shown again and again) that all doomsday predictions and worst-case scenarios will ultimately be declawed, defanged and downright disemboweled by a phenomenon only slightly less certain than those two old standbys, death and taxes: an irrepressible little market force called supply-and-demand.

Yes, in Manufacturing 4.0 workers will be challenged as never before as technology continues to encroach on what, for a full century, has always been their sacred turf.  And, yes, many of them will fall victim to our sector’s ever-growing reliance on cutting edge technology.

But those industrial workers who do fall victim to what is proving to be a tidal wave of automation will all have at least one thing in common. They will all go down firmly believing in the clearly defined boundaries of their own skills and will spend the rest of their days utterly convinced they know everything they need to know to qualify for a good-paying job in the manufacturing sector.

MFG 4.0aFor years, one of my mantras has been that our workers need to wake up to (and fully embrace) a concept that many of our most prudent and progressive educators have long espoused.  It’s a wonderful concept called “lifelong learning,” and it is the process by which students no longer view their own body of knowledge as a static entity, but instead spend their lives in the constant pursuit of ways to build on it.

Similarly, I’ve long embraced a second mantra: one that holds that seismic shifts in any marketplace create untold occasions for both individual growth and new business opportunities.  Because (once again, as it’s been proven more often than I care to count) for all the doors that technology promises to slam shut on workers’ faces, it will kick open that many more.

MFG 4.0cThis is where the whole supply-and-demand thing comes in. Because as industrial jobs become scarcer and more reliant on specific knowledge and skill sets, the wisdom of the marketplace will demand that more and more employees upgrade and modernize their skills.   And in the process, much like rising tides and floating boats, our entire sector will reap the benefits.  American manufacturing will get significantly stronger.  It will become more nimble.  And, above all, it will become better qualified to stay ahead of the constantly changing demands of today’s global marketplace.

But before any of that can happen, our sector’s workers need to take a good hard look in the mirror and embrace one simple but unflinching truth; they need to start getting retrained, and the sooner the better.  And they need to understand too that, while there will be new jobs opening in manufacturing and heavy industry, relatively few of them will be on the shop floor.

The nature of our business is constantly changing, along with the technology driving it.  As a result, the physical making of products (a responsibility being assumed with greater frequency by sophisticated machines) will require less in the way of human capital.  But at the same time, disciplines like product design & development, sales, research, marketing, finance, logistics and client support, service and training will not only grow in importance, they will represent tremendous opportunities for anyone willing to be trained to do them.

MFG 4.0bWhat’s more, as client lists and target markets diversify and become more international in nature, being bi-lingual, which was likely always considered a quaint talent by certain employers, will suddenly become a marketable job skill.

The jobs, in other words will be there.  They just won’t look and feel the way they do today.

In their book, Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the 21st Century, Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston contend the “college for everyone” myth is finally being exposed for the fraud it is, and that labor – skilled labor – represents one of the great growth areas in today’s (and tomorrow’s) job market.

MFG 4.0fIt’s not that the loss of jobs in Manufacturing 4.0 should scare today’s labors and factory workers. After all, in a world driven by automation, speed-to-market, manufacturing-on-demand and ultra-lean production there will always be a need for skilled, qualified workers.

MFG 4.0eNo, what should scare them is that little voice inside their head telling them they already know everything they need.

Note:  A version of this blog post originally appeared in June/July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.