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If We Have the Will...

July 15, 2010
We CAN Revitalize American Manufacturing…If We Want To
By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

This editorial is for our American readers. Everybody else may ignore this or read along, as you wish. For American automation professionals, I have a challenge. We CAN revitalize American manufacturing…if we want to. With Bloomburg's "Businessweek" referring to the "myth of industrial infallibility" to explain both the economic crash and the BP oil spill, we have to ask ourselves what the solution is. We need strong manufacturing enterprises, but we are not willing to pay the price, are we? We can have safe, smart, responsible, sustainable manufacturing…if we want to.

What will it take? Several of the solution steps are obvious. Some are perhaps not so.

First, we need a national industrial manufacturing policy that says clearly states our country's goals for manufacturing. Unfortunately, too many legislators, lobbyists and even some business leaders seem to be convinced that manufacturing sort of just happens, without planning, philosophy or intelligence. As automation professionals, we clearly know that isn't true, and that manufacturing is as much science as, say, packaged derivatives or high-tech software development. We need the full faith and credit, as they say, of the federal government to help us convince business leaders of the truth of this statement. We can get the government to understand manufacturing…if we want to.

A revitalized manufacturing sector is a strategic investment that our government should make in the future of the United States. One of the ways to make that investment is to foster a private-public-university partnership for the development of new manufacturing models and theory, the same way the government sponsored Sematech in the 1980s to foster the growth of the semiconductor industry.

I've recently been in China, meeting with companies and universities, and seeing how China's version of this partnership works—and it works very well, thank you. We can harness the power of our academic excellence to create the manufacturing of the future…if we want to.

Stanford economist Paul David wrote a paper some years back in which he showed that the effect of electricity on the economy led to what he called the Second Industrial Revolution. It is clear in retrospect that there have been technological and philosophical step changes in society based on technological developments for centuries.
The occurrence of step changes is hard to predict, and when they appear they do not have the same, easy-to-understand ROI as incremental changes do. We are used to incremental changes, such as are fostered by Six Sigma, Kaizen and similar theories of manufacturing.

We are not used to sweeping step changes in manufacturing technology. Do you think that New York Governor DeWitt Clinton knew that building the Erie Canal would, in a very short time, make New York the financial capital of the world? Not hardly. Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and Bell didn't foresee the step change in productivity that electricity would create either.

It's hard to see these step changes except in retrospect. But we have been in the middle of one for long enough now that we can see what it is and how we can use it. We may not see the endpoint, but the revolution in information handling and communications since 1980 has already changed the ways we live, the ways we do business, and the ways we interact with each other. Suppose we were to apply this step change to manufacturing? We can apply the lessons and technology learned from "ubiquitous information"…if we want to.
What would a completely interconnected, smart manufacturing plant look like? We can  build such plants…if we want to.

Do we want to?

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