We Need Focus To Grow & Sustain Manufacturing

Up to this point, US manufacturing – the newly discovered darling of economists and academics – has been leading the charge in this lethargic recovery. Despite other areas of our economy that remain anchors around its neck, the US industrial base – God bless us – continues to exceed expectations by out-performing almost every other sector.

And this, despite 3 straight months of contraction. Even under duress, US manufacturing continues to prove its value to a competitive economy.

That’s all impressive, but what if there was actual clarity around where to go, what to do, what not to do, and how to do it, with regard to manufacturing? Imagine the strength of the manufacturing sector – and the economy as a whole – if we weren’t so impossibly, frustratingly fractured and discombobulated.

Right now, we need a clear vision, clearly enunciated, and easily understood. Instead, we get band-aids and myopia that seem to propel us farther away from the basic economic principals that gave us our manufacturing might in the first place.

To understand what I mean, look at this PARTIAL list of recent initiatives, projects and ventures brought to us by our federal government to reinvigorate our manufacturing base:

  • Manufacturing In America, A Comprehensive Strategy to Address the Challenges to U.S. Manufacturers (US Dept of Commerce, 2004)
  • The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Sciences (COMPETES) Act (US Congress, 2007) – Established Technology Innovation Program (TIP) within NIST
  • Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act (US Congress, 2012) – Eliminated TIP
  • A Framework For Revitalizing American Manufacturing (POTUS, 2009)
  • The National Innovation Marketplace (POTUS & NIST, 2009)
  • Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (POTUS & multiple agencies, 2010, annual, current)
  • American Manufacturing Competitiveness Act of 2012 (US Congress, 2012) – Currently in committee
  • AMP – The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (POTUS, 2011)
  • The Materials Genome Initiative (POTUS, various departments, 2011)
  • Report: The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States (US Dept of Commerce, 2012)
  • National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (POTUS, 2013, proposed)
  • National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), Youngstown, OH (POTUS, 2012)

And this list doesn’t even touch the state- and municipal-level government programs we’ve seen crop up in the recent past. You know what I’m talking about – those programs that are often federally-funded? You’ve seen them in your area, right?

It seems like every 6 months – particularly during the last 3 1/2 years – there’s a new idea, a fresh approach, another acronym, a new consortium of public and private ‘partners’ that’ll clean up the mess. And when the latest experiment falls flat or funding runs out, there comes another new initiative that’ll do the trick. This time, for sure. Until the next one, that is.

What we need aren’t more disjointed, myopic partnerships, reports, or frameworks. What we need is a national industrial policy, well-defined and clearly articulated, that will allow for meaningful (and profitable) relationships and support networks to form organically within the private sector. And this policy must be constructed & sustained to consider its influence across the entire economy, not simply within a segmented sector.

Look – no one is happier that manufacturing has been elevated in the debate over our economic past, present, and future. But sometimes, the laws of unintended consequences slam head-on into the lack of will and focus to follow through. That’s what we’ve had too much of over the last 10 years.

The government is there to help define and enforce that policy, to maintain an environment that supports our collective interests – economic, industrial, and national security. It’s not there to create a morass of confusion and uncertainty with various, fragmented boondoggles that are expensive, wasteful, and more than likely to fail.

Focus is the answer. And right now, we could use a lot more of that if we’re truly serious about growing our manufacturing base for the long-term.

AJ Sweatt
  1. As much as it pains me, both professionally and personally, to disagree, AJ, I think the only growth path that has any possible forward momentum is for the government to get the hell out of the way. The reason all these policies every few months have failed to help is because the folks in Washington DC cannot possibly determine what “the economy” needs. The economy is simply a description of how all us humans, all us Americans specifically, work together to meet needs and make money.

    Frankly, I think it’s the constantly changing political direction that makes it so difficult for our manufacturing sector to decide where next to properly spend their resources. Where is the next growth area? Well, the US Feds said it was solar, until they f’d over the entire industry by backing companies like Solyndra. Now what? Now that several of those companies have failed despite the Fed programs, if you just invested in machines to support that goal, you’re screwed. So where should your money be? In the next Fed scheme? Wouldn’t recommend it, and neither would many of those potential investors out there.

    Keep the government out of it entirely (no new plans, no new acronyms), and suddenly you might see some actual investment in new technologies that people want to spend money on; you know, things that actually generate growth.

    – JF

    • Jason, I love to be disagreed with. Especially by you. But I’m gonna lay the double-reverse disagreement on you here.

      The fact is they’re already in the way. Through taxation, regulation, and representation, they’re smack in the middle of things. And that’s not gonna change. It’s just not. And another reality is that the government has performed with exceptional results as a benign enforcer of policy before. You, of all people, don’t need the examples thrown up here (besides, that’s more fun to do over a beer or two). But my major complaint isn’t that the government shouldn’t have a role at all – it’s that it’s trying to be something it ain’t, and cant be. I do agree with you that the creation of acronyms & plans are best done AFTER the private sector has created something, not before and certainly not as a foundation by which we must all perform going forward. A policy (or, more accurately, a suite of policies that acknowledge their mutual influences) worked quite well for us in the past, it’s working pretty well for other economies that have successfully wrested a great deal of our manufacturing cred, and it’s what we need now.

      And I know that you of all people are familiar with my work here – and you know my consistency on the issue of government’s role in the dismantling of US manufacturing in the first place. We’re probably closer to agreement than you might think. Except I do believe that government should act as referees – not players, not coaches, and surely not owners.

      Thanks for the thoughtful note, brother.

  2. Yes, I completely agree that government is the problem and that they are unlikely to get out of the way any time soon, but I don’t think any further action on their part will help the manufacturing space in general. Will some companies benefit? Sure, just ask Solyndra.

    As for their proper role, Yes on the referees bit. Government’s role should be to uphold contract law and to enforce recompense when wrongs are done, but real direct harm, not this current squishy protectionism crap like going after Toyota for bogus claims the day after buying GM and paying off the union while screwing all the retirees who had been relying on muni bonds that had been invested in GM stock.

    Solutions? None, at least not with the current political climate. Definitely a “gonna get mine” attitude, it seems, in most levels of government at the moment. It is hugely positive to watch this reshoring activity, and I just hope the Feds stay out of the way long enough to let it gel!

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