The Coming Manufacturing Renaissance

By Jennifer Read
Let’s face it. Whether you think the official recession is over or not, the global economy is not in such great shape. US consumers are severely tapped out, and some major changes will have to occur before a growth engine replacement will be found. As one pundit put it recently, most of the ‘green shoots’  in the global economy have been the direct result of ‘manure’ coming from government stimulus programs and are unsustainable at the current deficit spending levels.  They are throwing money at the same tired industries that have failed the requirement for productive sustainable economic health: housing, construction, banking, healthcare. A sustainable recovery will require serious realignment in the investment priorities and assumptions of the policy makers and resource managers, as well as different decision-making at the grassroots level.

Ultimately, an economy is a snapshot of the sum total of what people who have a choice (typically the brightest people) at a given point in time have chosen to do to make a living and to spend that income. When people decide to do something else, things can reverse course quite dramatically. That’s what makes forecasting a challenge.  In the U.S., we are living with the consequence of the general wisdom that holds factories are dirty and a service economy is better, specifically marketing,  finance, insurance, banking and general paper-pushing. But if you spend some time with the Facebook generation, you will get a sense that maybe this is changing. A Wall St. Journal article, entitled, “Tinkering Makes a Comeback,” posits that ‘making cool stuff’ is looking like a better career option.  The article quotes  an MIT professor saying, “I’ve been here 23 years and I definitely see this trend back to hands-on,” he says. “A lot of people are pretty disappointed with an image of a career in finance and they’re looking for a career that’s real.”

The article cites as evidence the mushrooming of engineering playground co-ops called “hackerspaces’ that have sprung up around the globe. For a monthly fee, engineering students, or just everyday folks can work on inventions, using available tools, components, equipment and the shared knowledge of fellow enthusiasts. The cost of essential equipment like CNC metal working machines has become so affordable that these coops have been able to re-ignite the inventing spirit in Everyman.

This is heartening, so we decided to do a little informal, non-scientific research to verify the trend. I spoke to some engineering students I know. One junior at Arizona State University confirmed that he has quite a workshop set up in his dorm room; in fact he operates a cell phone repair business, buying online and repairing for resale to earn some extra money. He notes that a Hackerspace community called ‘Heatsync Labs’ is forming in Tempe, looking for donations and equipment and permanent meeting space. When asked about his future vocation, he comments, “I can’t wait to get out of school and start making things that are useful to people. I don’t want to just make things rich people can buy, I want to solve problems. And, mom, can you send me my December rent check ASAP?” Well, yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, the above-quoted engineering student is a relative.

Hackerspaces and budding capitalism are not the only outlets for this impulse. At Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), in Chicago, the robotics club is always on the lookout for discarded items to enable their many projects. A group of students recently found a floor scrubber in the dumpster, and you would have thought it was spring break in Ft. Lauderdale. Next month, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, is scheduled to launch a partnership with Lockheed Martin modeled after the famous “Skunkworks” program.  Skunkworks got its start in 1943 when Kelly Johnson was charged with developing  the top secret P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter plane. That group operated out of a rented circus tent near a plastics manufacturing plant that produced a strong odor. Hence the name. The hallmark of the organization was the ability to by-pass corporate bureaucracy in favor of getting innovative products completed and into production. The SMU version of the  program will apply the same spirit to solving real problems of infrastructure construction, clean energy and so forth, in a brand-new laboratory that probably doesn’t smell that bad.

So there are plenty of reasons to expect a renaissance in innovation and manufacturing across the globe. I imagine many electronics OEMs and EMS companies are already actively seeking out  and supporting these initiatives on campuses and in communities through donations of time and resources. One of our clients, Jabil Circuits, operates a facility in Tempe, Arizona, close to ASU. They work with the industrial engineering department, sponsoring senior projects and interns to give students hands-on experience. We’d love to hear about other programs. Let us know what you are doing by commenting on our blog.

4 Responses to “The Coming Manufacturing Renaissance”

  1. [...] by Tempe Guy on November 24, 2009 … for resale to earn some extra money. He notes that a Hackerspace community called ‘Heatsync Labs’ is forming in Tempe, looking for donations and equipment and permanent meeting space. When asked about his future vocation, he comments, “I can’t wait … Go to Source [...]

  2. This century has seen a change in how EMS companies and other manufacturers do business; what used to be customer loyalty, built on trust and reliability, has been replaced by ‘the bottom line today.’ Until there is a more level playing field for manufacturing globally, the US sector will be largely unsustainable. To have a lasting effect on our economy, US manufacturing must regain at least 1/2 of the clout it had 20+ years ago. Our unbridled support of overseas manufacturing, through corporate investment and consumer purchasing, has put us in a difficult to reverse situation. The sooner we curb this trend the more possible it will be to capitalize on an alternative. In my opinion it is crucial to balance the trade deficit using the same practices our global neighbors use. ‘Made in the USA’ only means so much to families struggling to get by. We have all become much leaner in our manufacturing processes. Now we need to be rewarded for our efforts to keep jobs filled in the USA, by being allowed to compete! To me this means offering the best quality product at the best possible price. If this price must be lower than the cost required to manufacture it in order to compete, then we all lose. Obviously there are still some industries that have yet to shun the old status quo business practices that they have used with success for decades, and they too must change with the times. Our end of the balance must be to do everything we can to minimize costs, without compromising quality. The other end is to be allowed to compete, and to stop selling our country.

  3. Ken Taylor says:

    Your general outline of the new development process is agreeable but it overlooks the simple and (should be) obvious fact that so long as one group pays for the education of the developers, and for the development program but then hands it over to a second group to manufacture (and they haven’t had to fund anything except the actual fab costs per se, then the first group will continue to starve whilst the second group will become wealthy.
    It’s rather like one student studying hard for the test, whilst the second student just copies from the first.
    I allude, of course, to China versus the West, where the West funds the development beginning with educational costs and China just does the fab.
    Let me make it clear that I have no issue with fair competition – as in the test paper. We COMPETE with Japan, and we COMPETE with Korea, for example. But China? No, that’s not a competition, it’s a no-contest that has to be stopped.
    And I didn’t even mention phony currency rates, working conditions, human rights and the rest . . .
    Ken Taylor.

  4. I have worked in manufacturing for over 25 years and it has been my experience that manufacturing is not appreciated by society’s elite. Manufacturing is looked upon as being a dirty job, so to speak, that doesn’t deserve the kudos that sales and other professionals get. The truth is that manufacturing a quality product comes from talented people that deserve respect and economic benefits from their talents. If we lose this talent in the US then we are in deep trouble and we will lose this talent if it isn’t treated better.

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