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From the Shop Floor — The Week in Manufacturing (10/10/2013)

Sam Asano, a first generation immigrant whose many inventions, among them the portable  fax machine and the data tablet, apparently led MIT to dub him one of the ten most important inventors of the 20th Century, writes that the U.S. needs a strong manufacturing base.

The Associated Press writes that investment in the Mexican auto industry has become a major challenge for China.

Here’s an interesting Q&A with Susan Brennan, VP of Manufacturing at Nissan’s much-heralded and highly productive auto plant in Smyrna, GA.

A new $470 million manufacturing center and lab may be opening on the campus of the State University of New York at Albany.

A Chinese floor manufacturer will soon be opening a new $15 million, 40K sq. ft. manufacturing facility in Danville, VA, which will mean more than 100 new jobs for the local economy.

One blogger opines why, with manufacturing contracts and global pricing competitiveness as the central reasons, China hopes to dump the U.S. dollar.

One industry exec takes on Obamacare’s perceived threat to U.S. manufacturing and asks, it is real or it is manufactured?

U.S. cutting tool consumption rose another 1.3% in August.

One report says that the U.S. plastics industry continues to boom.

Meanwhile, U.S. manufacturing technology orders shot up almost 5% in August.

It was announced this week that the State of Illinois, a number of the state’s manufacturers and key educators are going to be pooling their resources to help train interested U.S. military veterans for careers in manufacturing.

A group calling itself American Made Matters urges consumers to bring back American manufacturing one purchase at a time.

Great Lakes Cheese of Ohio is building a new $100 million processing plant in Tennessee, which will mean some 200 new local jobs.

We chanted this mantra many times, but here’s one more story about how automation is propelling U.S. manufacturing forward.

China is becoming increasingly concerned and weighed in this past week on America’s ongoing political gridlock and repeated calls to cap our debt ceiling.  As might be expected, one North Carolina manufacturer took exception to those comments and returned volley by criticizing China for what he calls the country’s hypocrisy and its “phony standards.”

If you think China is fast becoming a fading force in global manufacturing, Forbes profiles at least one billionaire who would beg to differ.

The U.S./China Manufacturing Symposium, which had been slated for next month, has been pushed back to a to-be-determined date in March, yet another victim of the government shutdown.

Mike Collins, the author of Saving American Manufacturing, offers these nine vital signs which point to the resurgence of the U.S. industrial sector.

And finally, this one bit a great news; one recent survey says that anticipated manufacturing hiring reached a five-year high this past month, as more and more manufacturers say they’ll be hiring in the coming months to keep up with demand.






On Taking on Giants

By know I’m sure you’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the pioneering journalist whose unlikely best sellers, Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers, have turned so much conventional thinking on its ear and defied us to take a second look at accepted wisdom and countless things we take for granted.

Well, Gladwell’s at it again, having just released his latest book, David and Goliath, which critics say parses a number of what experts have always considered shocking victories and analyzes how a number of underdogs throughout history were able to achieve victory in the face of overwhelming odds.  And while I’ve not read the book yet, I did recently pick it up and plan on plowing through it over the next few days.

After all, when you’re a small manufacturer competing against some of the biggest corporations in the world, often from countries that channel millions of taxpayer money directly into the workings of those same corporations, a little understanding of how other Goliaths have been brought to their knees might not only be informative and inspiring, it might just turn out to be life-sustaining. 

And I bring this up today because a few weeks back I read the obituary of a small manufacturer the New York Times described as a “serial entrepreneur,” and I wanted to share with you in today’s blog post one of the most remarkable decisions he ever made.  

Also because in reading his obit, I was reminded once again how manufacturers like me – relatively small guys with a limited number of resources – are often given no alternative but to try to out-smart, out-quick and, perhaps most of all, out-think the big guys we’re trying to compete against.

Here’s the story: Robert R. Taylor was a soap salesman for Johnson & Johnson in the 1960s who found himself frustrated by the limitations and drudgery of corporate life.  In time he branched out on his own and started his own soap and cosmetics manufacturing firm, a decision that compelled him to constantly experiment and tinker with many of the very same products he used to schlep around the country for a giant he was now trying to go after with a slingshot. 

Then one day Taylor hit on something, and he knew immediately it was going to be big.

For years he had obsessed over how to make everyday bar soap better, since at the time soap used in the shower, sink or workplace always got smaller, softer and less useful with each usage.  Eventually, the bar and all that still-useful soap would simply have to be thrown away.

So Taylor invented a liquid version of everyday hand soap that he planned to sell not in bars, but in small plastic containers with pump dispensers.  The problem was, he realized, it would only be a matter of time until Colgate-Palmolive, Lever Brothers, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and the rest of the big boys started producing their own variation of his invention, patent or not, and that his product would soon be swallowed whole by his competitors’ almost unlimited resources – in either the courts or in the marketplace.

So what did he do?  He made a strategic decision in which he bet everything he had on his understanding of what it would take to bring liquefied bar soap to market.  And it turned out to be a classic bet-the-company strategy. 

Taylor borrowed against his company’s few assets, put together as much cash as he could get his hands on, targeted the two manufacturers of plastic bottles in the country, and then split his order between them – an unprecedented total order that amounted to some 100 million small plastic bottles, or what he projected to be a year’s supply of liquefied soap containers for his company.

Taylor gambled, correctly so, that by tying up the capabilities of his competitors’ potential vendors for a full year, he’d give himself a twelve-month head start with which to hit the market, relentlessly brand his radical new product and establish it as a breakthrough alternative to the messy and wasteful bar soap his competitors were going to spend the year trying to pass off as hand soap.

Which is exactly what happened, and for the duration of 1972, Softsoap – and Softsoap alone – set about the process of changing forever how America washed its hands.

The lesson?  When you’re a small manufacturer, industriousness, smarts, blood, sweat and long-hours will only take you so far.  So, frankly, will even the greatest idea.  At some point, it is probably also going to require a level of intestinal fortitude on the manufacturer’s part, or something our friends south of the border might call, “cojones.”

My friends, Robert R. Taylor had cojones in spades.  And my guess is Malcolm Gladwell has just written about a number of people who had a surplus of them as well.

And even as I write this, I promise myself to finish Gladwell’s book right away.  I promise too to never lose sight of the role that guts and courage have to play in the process of waking up each morning and realizing that, as a small manufacturer, right outside my door is yet one more giant laughing at me, my smarts, my experience, my staff, and most of all, my slingshot.


From the Shop Floor — The Week in Manufacturing (10/4/2013)

Market Watch says that, while manufacturing jobs are returning to the U.S., the flow of jobs has been little more like a trickle.

Forbes says that if Apple were to produce the iPhone domestically it would cost them $4.2 billion.

Japanese manufacturing giant Yokohama Tire Corporation is going to be building a major production facility in Mississippi.

And in South Carolina, they’re excited about the fact that German tape manufacturer Coroplast is spending $12 million to bring a new plant to York County, a move that will add roughly 150 jobs to the local economy.

The Department of Energy this past week honored 120 different U.S. manufacturers which, using better plant design and a more efficient allocation of resources, saved some $1 billion in energy and emissions costs this past year.

The ISM says that U.S. manufacturing expanded at a faster rate in September than it had in any month in 2 1/2 years.

Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing grew in September as well, though at a slower rate than anticipated.

The Hill writes that National Manufacturing Day this year highlighted both the opportunities and challenges of anyone contemplating a career in our sector of the economy.

U.S. News and World Report, on the other hand, says the day casts a light on the skills gap that continues to haunt so many manufacturers, large and small, around the country.

In Indiana, officials used the occasion to alert the media that the Hoosier State has a higher percentage of private sector jobs in manufacturing than any state in the union.

While in West Virginia, officials used the day as an opportunity to communicate the need for cooperation between the public and private sectors.

Perhaps defying the re-shoring trend, Hershey’s, the Pennsylvania-based chocolate giant, is opening an all-new production facility in Malaysia, with 90% of the plant’s output targeted for export.

In Computer World, an industry CEO blogs about 3D printing, the U.S. manufacturing renaissance, and the American middle class.

And finally, Wal-Mart last week ramped up the verbiage around its current “Made in America” initiative by emailing consumers across the country, urging them to buy American, and reminding them they can help bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. if they do so.