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Forward, thinking

Jan. 19, 2010
Robert Brooks Editor-in-Chief [email protected] This year started out with a surprise for me: a procurement exec with an important OEM called out of the blue to seek my insights on a plan that, if effected, would ...
Robert Brooks Editor-in-Chief [email protected]

This year started out with a surprise for me: a procurement exec with an important OEM called out of the blue to seek my insights on a plan that, if effected, would eventually restructure that company’s supply chain. It’s a plan that would benefit everyone involved, in the sense that only the best-managed, most adaptive machine shops and fabricators would have the opportunity to be involved. But who’s ready to respond? I wondered.

I can’t predict whether this plan will take shape or not, and I don’t suspect that the future of manufacturing depends on it. There are solid indicators — including increasing consumer confidence; rising producer prices and industrial production data during Q4 2009; and the U.S. Commerce Dept.’s studies showing continuing economic expansion since last July — that a manufacturing recovery is already in progress.

Hearing the caller’s idea, I immediately recognized it as something more. It is the sort of forwardthinking strategy that has been missing from manufacturing for a long time. The past year will stand in our memories as one of decline, but to my mind, the harder part of the recovery effort is to overcome the intellectual stasis that has accompanied the business recession.

A billboard I pass frequently offers this reminder: “Bill Gates started Microsoft in a recession.” It’s meant to be encouraging, but it makes me wonder where are the novel ideas that will spur our turnaround?

Apart from the heated politics inherent to it, the “What-went-wrong … What-can-we-do?” discussion of the past year has not led to any persuasive ideas that address the interlocking problems that hound the manufacturing sector: tepid industrial demand, lack of a skills/training, unavailable financing, and the availability of affordable energy.

There’s nothing new about these. Each one has been apparent for years, but in the anxiety of the past year, they are combined into the justification for grand “plans.” We’ve tried massive federal stimulus, to no discernible effect, yet. Government takeovers have stabilized some manufacturing concerns, but arguably have weakened some others. Tariffs on industrial goods are increasing.

Still, we have only talked about worker training (and retraining), and available energy is unobtainable because of political and regulatory obstacles. Because we focus so intently on the big picture, we miss the small improvements. We have no clarity about our own circumstances.

It’s clear to me that most of what has made manufacturing so difficult, and indeed business in general, has been the surplus of big ideas. Analysts, consultants, academics and advocates have surrounded us with clouds of “solutions,” adding more to each individuals’ confusion than to general understanding.

This lack of understanding transforms so easily into anxiety, especially in the past year, that the alternative should be obvious: avoid big ideas. The problems remain, but they return to their proper scale. They will respond to appropriate solutions.

For example, domestic industrial demand may not rebound to suit every shop’s needs; there has to be a global component to your production plan. If skilled labor isn’t available, don’t lower the standard: raise the level of opportunity. If project financing isn’t obtainable, redefine the objective. Or, seek new equity partners.

The right approach for 2010 is to pursue your own initiative, with confidence and preparedness, regardless of experts’ advice.

If the past year has been devoted to figuring out what has gone wrong in manufacturing, and what can be salvaged, it would be good to start early this year figuring out what we can do to return our enterprises to growth. Perhaps more important, we ought to restore ourselves to thinking about progress, forward-thinking that views problems as an invitation to try again, and accepts failure as the opening to a different approach.

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