The flexible core

As the manufacturing sector continues to reflect the overall economy by showing regular, positive gains, some wage a battle of words over how the dark forces of unbridled capitalism are slowly but surely killing U.S. manufacturing. To them I say: baloney. Capitalism brought U.S. manufacturing to its apex in the 20th century and keeps it as one of the strongest factors of our country's power ...

02/01/2004


As the manufacturing sector continues to reflect the overall economy by showing regular, positive gains, some wage a battle of words over how the dark forces of unbridled capitalism are slowly but surely killing U.S. manufacturing. To them I say: baloney.

Capitalism brought U.S. manufacturing to its apex in the 20thcentury and keeps it as one of the strongest factors of our country's power even today. The problem is, those who complain about the current state of American manufacturing seem more concerned with the loss of manufacturing jobs than our manufacturing capabilities as a nation. Beware of simplistic suggestions, such as, "As we lose manufacturing jobs, we lose our ability to remain an economic power." Or "More union membership will keep those jobs in place." Inflexibility and inefficiencies in any form speed the flow of manufacturing jobs elsewhere and cripple the competitive ability of U.S. companies to deliver the products consumers want, when they want them, at a price they are willing to pay.

Capitalism demands the same of all business: flexibility; and that is what U.S. manufacturers have historically done and will continue to do, increasingly with the aid of automation technology.

Eastman Machine, a fabric-cutting OEM based in Buffalo, N.Y., featured in a recent issue of Fortune magazine, is a good indicator of manufacturing's future in this country. Instead of manufacturing the products they always have and entering a losing battle against cheaper products from Asia, the company has pursued the path of innovation by manufacturing highly automated, software-driven cutting machines that foreign competitors can't cheaply replicate and that bring in more revenue than the company's previous products.

Yes, Eastman Machine now operates with 1/3 fewer workers than it did in the past, but the company remains viable and a good example of manufacturing flexibility and ingenuity.

Many of the physical goods historically made in the U.S. can now be made anywhere. But that serves to highlight the issue that manufactured goods, in and of themselves, are not our manufacturing strength. Our strength is our manufacturing know-how—the very trait embodied by our engineers. They are the ones who provide the flexible rubber to meet the road that market forces lay before them. An engineer is not a commodity worker unless he or she chooses to be one by refusing to learn new skills or be adaptable to the demands of the job and industry.

Now is not the time for engineers to cower under collective tents that will only protect their jobs in the short term. Instead, engineers should use their individual knowledge and creativity to illuminate the path to future American manufacturing success.

dgreenfield@reedbusiness.com





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