I recently dropped a post, ‘Here’s A Solution: Why Not Declare War On Manufacturing?,’ that put out a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that if we REALLY want the government to ‘save’ US manufacturing, they should declare ‘war’ on it. If we do that, I said in jest, maybe we’d get the same results the ‘wars’ on poverty & drugs have gotten, then manufacturing would thrive.

But the truth in that post – and in this one – is that we’re not helpless lemmings, wandering aimlessly, waiting to be ‘saved’ from extinction. Or, at least, we don’t have to be. Manufacturing in the US – particularly small & medium manufacturers – are where the bullet of innovation hits the bone. Always has been that way, ya know? And as bad as the economy or markets get, manufacturers always bounce back.

And manufacturing will lead the charge ahead. Not the government. Not the brokerage houses. Not the banks, who’ll only lend you an umbrella when the sun’s shining.

It’s up to us. And there are clear signals that point to what needs to be done. You’ve heard them before, and likely blown them off. They’re not for the the faint of heart, but we’re in this fight and those solutions are no longer alternatives – they’re necessary.

Two recent messages add to the growing voices of change, and help to define these solutions clearly. And as bedrock manufacturers we need to get onboard – to redefine and rebuild on the foundations that remain of our industries and create new ones.

In the first of these messages – a direct example in the form of a blog post from Modern Machine Shop –  Pete Zelinski (follow @Z_Axis_MMS on Twitter) introduces us to a shop in Wisconsin that is expanding in the face of tough economic pressures. The contract manufacturer (KLH Industries) has invested in technologies and expanded its processes to the point that, for the first time in its history, it’s moving into a second facility to accommodate its new machines and the larger associated parts (and materials).

KLH’s CEO puts it simply, saying that even though economics have made it easy to sit on their hands for awhile, he ‘… realized how important it was not to get stuck in that survival mentality.”

The second message comes from the inaugural Interactive Manufacturing Experience (imX) event, just wrapping up in Las Vegas. The keynote address on Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011, was delivered by Jim Carroll – an author, speaker and authority on innovation, future trends and technology. The observations Jim shared with the imX audience were passed along by many attendees via Social Media, and are compelling for small manufacturers to note as we navigate the current economic realities (comments in parenthesis are my own):

  • The future of manufacturing will feature more 3D printing, shift to “additive manufacturing” over “subtractive,” like cutting, milling or drilling. (The evolution of manufacturing technology will begin accelerating at much faster rates in the near future. Now’s the time to condition yourself to adapt.)
  • Innovation is more than just product development. Its an organization that challenges its staff to run the business better, grow & transform itself. (Change must be adopted and embraced – standing still isn’t an option. New markets, new processes, new services must lead change in your organization. This will not be an option for much longer.)
  • Rethinking innovation includes market disruption, bold leaps, high-velocity/agile organizations. Manufacturers take note! (Redefining your business includes redefining what services you provide, as they differentiate you from your competition – no matter where that competition is.)
  • World-class innovators ride accelerating waves of change. (Adopt and adapt.)
  • World-class manufacturers challenge the fundamentals of process. Be agile. Be fast. (Just as KLH moved ahead toward large parts manufacturing for aerospace, identify the markets, processes and services that define world-class and move toward them.)
  • 10 words regarding innovationObserve. Think. Change. Dare. Banish. Try. Question. Grow. Do. Enjoy.

The government may well do more to create the right environment for manufacturing to grow – or not. But it doesn’t innovate, or create manufacturing jobs. Your business does.

No one’s denying that the path ahead is steep. The US economy is stifling confidence & manufacturing job creation. Working capital is hard to come by. And there’s no question that government can and should play a role that encourages small manufacturers to grow.

But while we’re ultimately in this alone, we’re in it together. It’s time to get moving, and stop waiting for those that don’t understand to catch up. Now isn’t the time to go into ‘survival mentality‘ mode – it’s time for ‘innovation mentality‘ mode. In sales. In marketing. In entering new markets. In adopting new processes. In mastering new technologies. In providing new services your customers don’t even know they need yet.

And it’s time to tell the markets you serve what you can do. Market your value, and what separates you from your competition. Embrace new technologies – like MTConnect – and expand your processes to grow your business. Plug into the knowledge-sharing potential that you’ve ignored for too long. Give companies a reason for reshoring their production, based on quality and efficiency. Get creative.

Isn’t it about time to stop reacting, and start defining?