It’s been a long slide from greatness for US manufacturing. It’s been downhill since the 70s – a multi-decade slide. Lately there’s a lot of hype about a manufacturing renaissance in the US – re-shoring, on-shoring, right-shoring. But the celebration is misguided. A real, sustainable return to greatness will take decades, decades of single-minded focus, coordination, alignment and hard work – industry, government, and academia in it together for the long haul.
To return to greatness, the number of new manufacturing jobs to be created is distressing. 100,000 new manufacturing jobs is paltry. And today there is a severe skills gap. Today there are unfilled manufacturing jobs because there’s no one to do the work. No one has the skills. With so many without jobs it sad. No, it’s a shame. And the manufacturing talent pipeline is dry – priming before filling. Creating a sea of new manufacturing jobs will be hard, but filling them will be harder. What can we do?
The first thing to do is make list of all the open manufacturing jobs and categorize them. Sort them by themes: by discipline, skills, experience, tools. Use the themes to create training programs, train people, and fill the open jobs. (Demonstrate coordinated work of government, industry, and academia.) Then, using the learning, repeat. Define themes of open manufacturing jobs, create training programs, train, and fill the jobs. After doing this several times there will be sufficient knowledge to predict needed skills and proactive training can begin. This cycle should continue for decades.
Now the tough parts – transcending our short time horizon and finding the money. Our time horizon is limited to the presidential election cycle – four years, but the manufacturing rebirth will take decades. Our four year time horizon prevents success. There needs to be a guiding force that maintains consistency of purpose – manufacturing resurgence – a consistency of purpose for decades. And the resurgence cannot require additional money. (There isn’t any.) So who has a long time horizon and money?
The DoD has both – the long term view (the military is not elected or appointed) and the money. (They buy a lot of stuff.) Before you call me a war hawk, this is simply a marriage of convenience. I wish there was, but there is no better option.
The DoD should pull together their biggest contractors (industry) and decree that the stuff they buy will have radically reduced cost signatures and teach them and their sub-tier folks how to get it done. No cost reduction, no contract. (There’s no reason military stuff should cost what it does, other than the DoD contractors don’t know how design things cost effectively.) The DoD should educate their contractors how to design products to reduce material cost, assembly time, supply chain complexity, and time to market and demand the suppliers. Then, demand they demonstrate the learning by designing the next generation stuff. (We mistakenly limit manufacturing to making, when, in fact, radical improvement is realized when we see manufacturing as designing and making.)
The DoD should increase its applied research at the expense of its basic research. They should fund applied research that solves real problems that result in reduced cost signatures, reduce total cost of ownership, and improved performance. Likely, they should fund technologies to improve engineering tools, technologies that make themselves energy independent and new materials. Once used in production-grade systems, the new technologies will spill into non-DoD world (broad industry application) and create new generation products and a sea of manufacturing jobs.
I think this is approach has a balanced time horizon – fill manufacturing jobs now and do the long term work to create millions of manufacturing jobs in the future.
Yes, the DoD is at the center of the approach. Yes, some have a problem with that. Yes, it’s a marriage of convenience. Yes, it requires coordination among DoD, industry, and academia. Yes, that’s almost impossible to imagine. Yes, it requires consistency of purpose over decades. And, yes, it’s the best way I know.
Dr. Mike Shipulski (certfied TRIZ practioner) brings together the best of TRIZ, Axiomatic Design, Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (2006 DFMA Contributor of the Year), and lean to develop new products and technologies. His blog can be found at Shipulski On Design.