Nothing staged about manufacturing’s reality

I’ve heard little from either side in this political season that strives to address the real issues of manufacturing… If Congress and the White House were as well organized and efficient as most manufacturing plants, this wouldn’t be much of a debate.


Bob Vavra, Content Manager, Plant EngineeringThe debate about manufacturing jobs – what kind, how many and most important, who is going to do them – will be a part of our political landscape for the next eight months. Settle in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The people talking about manufacturing are very seldom the people who do any manufacturing, unless manufacturing quotes counts. The United States is the world leader in the manufacturing of quotes, although you seldom hear that talked about. Maybe it’s that we don’t want to talk about the poor quality of our quotes…

Our readers – all of you – are the people actually in the best position to clearly communicate what is needed for manufacturing to continue to grow. Perhaps the discussion needs to begin with that simple fact: Manufacturing has grown over the last two years, and it has been the most stable part of our economy throughout the recession. It is leading us out of our economic disaster, and its being done with the fundamental idea that if we are smarter about manufacturing processes and people, we can overcome any perceived gap in trade or tariff or wage or regulation.

Those are facts, but if you’re trying to win an election and you’re not the party in power, the idea that things are going well is not a good way to get elected. And if you are the party in power, the idea we need to deliver more tax incentives at the top of the manufacturing food chain is appealing to those who might contribute to the campaign, but do little to address the fundamental issues needed at the plant floor.

I’ve heard little from either side in this political season that strives to address the real issues of manufacturing. I hear platitudes and complaints and appeasement, but there is an astonishing lack of real understanding of what’s actually happening at the plant level.

I’ve been on several plant tours in the last eight months, both in the U.S. and internationally. I’ve been able to see for myself what’s going on, how far we’ve really come to improve operations with nothing much more than sound leadership and an eye toward quality, safety and productivity. If Congress and the White House were as well organized and efficient as most manufacturing plants, this wouldn’t be much of a debate.

We need to reject the idea that manipulating the process is better than streamlining it. We should be providing rewards after improvement occurs, not tax breaks before it occurs. Unsafe, inefficient and wasteful plants are the vast minority of all manufacturers – and the largest reason regulation exists. You wouldn’t think that in 2012 we would still need a national discussion about workplace safety, but we do because of those few plants who value profits ahead of people.

And despite all of this, manufacturing jobs are migrating back to the U.S., and the country is winning new construction and expansion every day. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Caterpillar sign a deal to put a $200 million plant expansion in Georgia. There are continuing discussions about more global automakers relocating to Tennessee and South Carolina. And as issues of quality, safety and logistics continue to plague manufacturers who chased quick profits by outsourcing jobs to other countries, some of those jobs are migrating back.

The reason for all of this good news is simple – these are smart business moves. It’s smart to review the total cost of manufacturing and not just your wage rate when looking at where to manufacture. It’s smart to squeeze the most out of every inch of plant floor space when creating your production process. It’s smart to preserve and maximize resources – human, fossil fuel and renewable. It’s smart to strive for continuous improvement and still celebrate the current improvement.

American manufacturers have gotten smarter, and American manufacturing has reaped the benefits. When those who seek to govern America even approach that level of intelligence, we will all be better for it.

Until then, we’re forced to observe the reality television that is the 2012 campaigns. It’s a shame, really. What we really need is to hear more about the reality in manufacturing.

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