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.

Written by AJ Sweatt