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Manufacturing Day: Changing Perceptions One Person at a Time

Posted By Jeff Moad, October 07, 2014 at 10:27 AM, in Category: Manufacturing Advocacy

There was a time, not that long ago, when just about everyone had a friend, a family member, a neighbor who worked in manufacturing. Through them, even those of us who didn’t work on the plant floor every day could get an occasional snapshot of what it was like to make physical things for a living. At the very least, these connections made us aware that there was a large group of real people who go to work every day to make all of the things we buy and use.

That kind of cultural awareness of manufacturing is not so present anymore. As manufacturing has come to account for a smaller percentage of overall employment, and as the service sector—and, yes, the digital universe--represent bigger parts of the economy, many of us have lost that casual though very personal connection to manufacturing. This means that, at best, many of us don’t think much at all about manufacturing and the role it plays in economic growth and innovation. At worst, it means misperceptions about manufacturing—that it’s a dull, dirty, dark, dangerous occupation with no future—persist.

That’s why, to me, the most powerful thing about last week’s Manufacturing Day in the U.S. is simply that it gave people who normally don’t think about manufacturing—or who are misled about it—a chance to see firsthand what a plant and what manufacturing people are all about. And, as manufacturing becomes more front-of-mind for these people, perhaps they’ll become more inclined to pursue manufacturing careers or encourage their friends, children, nieces, nephews, and neighbors to do so.

That would be a welcome step forward for manufacturers in the U.S., many of whom face a skills shortage that seems to be getting worse. Just two years ago, the Manufacturing Institute and Pricewaterhouse Coopers published a survey showing that, although most Americans believe manufacturing is vital to the country’s economic health, only 35% would encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing. 

It’s estimated that 1,600 manufacturers opened their doors to the public for last Friday’s third annual Manufacturing Day event and that over 100,000 people took advantage of the chance to tour a local plant. One of those was Debbie Taylor who I met on a Manufacturing Day tour of Nor-Cal Metal Fabricators, a privately-owned, 61-year-old job shop in Oakland that does heavy, structural metal plate forming, creating custom parts and finished structures for the architectural, construction, food processing, manufacturing, marine, medical, signage, and telecommunications industries. On occasion, Nor-Cal also fabricates metal sculptures designed by Bay Area artists such as Damen Hyldreth and Roger Stoller. (The photo with this blog is a Hyldreth piece fabricated by Nor-Cal.)

Nor-Cal occupies 100,000 square feet under cover and another 40,000 square feet of outdoor space in a gritty part of the city just west of downtown and north of Jack London Square.

Although Debbie is active in community and political groups in Oakland, she admitted that she had never been aware of the existence of Nor-Cal or any of the hand-full of other manufacturing companies in the city that opened their doors on Manufacturing Day. Debbie spent the day visiting most of them. And she told me the experience changed her perception of manufacturing.

“I used to think it was all assembly lines and people doing the same thing over and over,” Debbie told me. “But it’s not like that at all.”

It would be a stretch to say Nor-Cal is a sparkling, eat-off-the-floor vision of lean order. The cavernous main building is full of about 50 large machines—some of them decades old—that are used to cut, fold, weld, and otherwise manipulate sheets of steel.

But even here technology is making a big impact. Three 3D CAD stations have replaced what had been up to 10 manual draftsmen. The technology has not only cut costs, it’s enabled Nor-Cal to take on challenging customer orders that the company might previously have taken a pass on.

Linear encoders on the cutting machines have enabled precision and reduced rework. And two robotic welding machines have quadrupled welding production.

The observation that technology is transforming manufacturing processes as basic as metal forming led to Debbie’s other insight for the day. Like many people, Debbie had heard that manufacturing is “coming back,” and she was hopeful that the renaissance-in-the-making would lead to a return of lots more good jobs for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. But she learned that that’s probably not the case.

“I’m going to tell everyone that the jobs are there—and they’re good jobs. But you’re going to need the right education and training in technology and engineering.”

If Manufacturing Day caused enough people like Debbie Taylor to come to those conclusions on their own—and tell their friends and families--it will have been well worth the effort.

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit

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