Earlier this week, I had a long flight and took advantage of the quiet time to catch up on some reading. The “Smart Manufacturing” series in the recent edition of NYSE Magazine (www.nysemagazine.com) really struck me. Articles by Susan Caminiti and Chris Warren highlight the transformation of manufacturing across the globe. Caminiti focuses on how Rockwell Automation is providing critical technology to growing manufacturing industries – creating “smart factories” — and showing how these technologies enable their clients to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. The article also describes the relationship between smart factories and the need for skilled workers. Warren broadens the discussion to explore the many challenges that a manufacturer today must address to stay competitive: maximizing the value chain (from design through sales and service), thinking lean and green, investing in people and skill development, and promoting continuous innovation.
The articles reminded me of conversations back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was widespread perception that the economies of Japan and Germany were poised to overtake the U.S. Policymakers and manufacturing leaders in the US were looking for “the solution.” Technology advocates argued that making the right investments in new technologies would enhance productivity and rejuvenate American manufacturing. Educators and training advocates suggested that skill development supplied the silver bullet. Both talked as though it was an “either-or” choice, in terms of national priorities, company strategy, and increased investments.
Today, I think we have a much more sophisticated understanding of what manufacturers must do to thrive in global markets. It is essential to take a holistic view of the company, starting with strategy, but encompassing all the elements that Chris Warren highlights, and more. Investing in new technologies alone without fully integrating and exploiting what they can do is sub-optimal Obviously, investing in worker training is critical for the success of new technologies. But providing worker training that is not connected to critical elements of company strategies and emerging opportunities does not yield good returns either. And investing in new technology or worker training, in a company culture that does not support or reward innovation or continuous improvement, is also destined to disappoint expectations. The bottom line is that effective leaders in manufacturing have to address and balance many issues at the same time in order to be successful. While at times it appears we are still struggling with decades-old issues, I am encouraged that there appears to be more widespread appreciation of the complexity, and the potential, of U.S. manufacturing today.