The presidential election in the United States is over, and either the good guy won, or, if you leaned the other way, the good guy lost. Either way, for the first time in years, the election included a serious discussion about manufacturing. Both candidates were for manufacturing. But being "for" something and actually doing things are quite different.
Politicians are for Mom, the flag, apple pie and babies, too. But they generally don't have to put their money where their mouths are.
Manufacturing in the United States has been written off as a dead issue ever since the 1990s, when companies started closing plants and offshoring jobs to "low-cost countries" such as China. Well, China isn't so low-cost, now. India and even Vietnam aren't as low-cost as they once were. Jobs are beginning to migrate back to the United States as quality issues and transportation costs multiply.
We've known for years that 21st century manufacturing was going to have to be smart, connected, sustainable and agile in order to be competitive. We've also known that we were not getting the trained workers and the R&D that we need. The influx of foreign workers to the United States is drying up as opportunities open up in their home countries. The number of students in engineering and the trades—the key entry points to manufacturing careers—has drop precipitously over the past two decades.
Mostly, industry leaders, politicians and the people that offshoring and automation have put out of work have been complaining about the situation, but not doing much about it.
Based on results, so far, it isn't likely that the private sector will step up in any meaningful way to do this. We can flog them verbally all we want, but it hasn't happened since offshoring began, and it isn't going to happen now.
Luckily, the federal government has begun to do something. The Obama administration has been deeply involved in the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition. In March of this year, President Obama announced his plan to invest $1 billion to start up a national network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes around the country to serve as centers of excellence in manufacturing. He called it NNMI, the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. The proposal is stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There are other initiatives, both federal and state. The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) has built a state-of-the-art Clean Coal Research lab in Morgantown, W.V. Other centers are researching additive manufacturing for the fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry. Five federal agencies have jointly commit to investing $45 million in this research without waiting for Congress to act.
The model for this is the space program. We're still living on the innovations produced by government investment in space exploration funded by the U.S. Dept. of Defense (DOD) and NASA. Everything from cardiac catheterization to memory foam beds to cell phones and tablet PCs are directly traceable to public investment in R&D for the space program.
This is what government and public/private partnerships are designed to do. It's what we used to do, and we should be doing again—and doing it now with some serious urgency.
If you'd like to see manufacturing back in North America in a big way, there are some important things you can do. Get your company interested in the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition. Encourage your representatives in both the state and federal legislatures to fund projects like the NNMI. The return on investments like these can be astronomical.