Support of innovation

The rapid growth of overseas manufacturing is creating opportunities and challenges for U.S. manufacturing. Companies are investing billions of dollars abroad to access emerging markets and take advantage of skilled workers. This month’s International Insight column (p. 20), focuses on two automation companies investing in Asian partners, and our “Global Focus on Manufacturing”...

By Renee Robbins, editorial director March 1, 2007

The rapid growth of overseas manufacturing is creating opportunities and challenges for U.S. manufacturing. Companies are investing billions of dollars abroad to access emerging markets and take advantage of skilled workers. This month’s International Insight column (p. 20), focuses on two automation companies investing in Asian partners, and our “Global Focus on Manufacturing” supplement has editors from our sister publications in Asia, China, and Western and Central Europe describing the manufacturing growth trends in their regions. Those opportunities, however, are often overshadowed by the challenge of keeping and growing manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

In its report, “Manufacturing: Engine of U.S. Innovation,” the National Association of Manufacturers says, “The American future hinges on optimizing innovation. U.S. investors are willing to take risks on new ideas; consumers welcome new products, and this country protects and rewards research and innovation through intellectual property rights. Yankee ingenuity has always been America’s strength….”

NAM also says that one of the problems with generating enough innovation is a lack of skilled engineers: the number of U.S. engineering degrees awarded has declined by 20 percent from its peak in 1985. I recently spoke with Benson Hougland, director of technical marketing for Opto 22, and he says the problem is not a shortage of engineering talent, but obstacles to innovation for the engineers already in place. “Engineers are creative,” he said. “They live to innovate. They love a good challenge, a tough problem, and finding the solution for it.”

What they don’t want to do is be challenged on their way to finding a solution. “Engineers want to solve problems,” Hougland says, “but the products that serve the automation industry today are confusing to understand, complex to use and expensive to buy.” He had called to tell me about his company’s revamped line of control hardware, software and free services. He believes the simplified hardware, integrated software, free and easily accessible training, and clear pricing are ways to remove obstacles to innovation. “It’s about simplifying the process for people who want to act on their ideas,” he says—something he clearly loves to do.

Hougland could be on to something. If innovation is what will save U.S. manufacturing, it makes sense to find tools and work processes that remove the obstacles. What keeps you from implementing new ideas? With spring being job-evaluation and goal-setting time in many U.S. companies, be sure to set a goal to support innovation. And let me know what that is, so Control Engineering can support you too.

renee.robbins@reedbusiness.com

The many wonderful products that make our lives easier and more productive did not just happen by chance. Someone invented them and someone found a way to produce them at a price most of us could afford. Overwhelmingly, these inventions are a product of U.S. innovation and the engine of that innovation is manufacturing. So says the National Association of Manufacturers in its 2006 report.

ShopFloor.org is a blog from the National Association of Manufacturers discussing issues affecting manufacturing, small businesses, free markets, outsourcing, energy prices, and more.

Manufacturing: Engine OF U.S. Innovation (16 page pdf)