Is Manufacturing a Key Enabler of Innovation?

Over the years I have listened to the discussion about America having to transition from a focus on manufacturing to a focus on innovation. Here are some of the more recent things I have been exposed to. Getting a masters in design engineering helps one to focus on the production market with the designing of products the main agenda of the program. Formation of products is the goal of the program and graduates are expected to gain the relevant skills to be able to compete favorably in the product markets. 

Gary Shapiro (President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association) wrote an article for Forbes Magazine entitled “Innovation, Not Manufacturing, Will Bring Jobs”. He claims most of the manufacturing being outsourced abroad requires little education or skill and is a bad fit for educated, bright people. He argues highly skilled, highly educated Americans should put their high-cost knowledge to good use.

Andrew Liveris (CEO of Dow Chemical) recently authored a book entitled “Make it in America” that discusses the unexpected implications of an interdependent global economy and concludes America needs to be both a service AND manufacturing economy to create sustainable health in the economy. He claims that countries with large populations cannot thrive on service industries alone and must have a robust manufacturing base to ensure broad employment.

Over breakfast yesterday, while on our family vacation, my oldest son who is pursuing a career in the fine arts, shared a link to testimony (short video) Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe (star of the series “Dirty Jobs” and “Mike Rowe Works”) gave to Congress on the need to support manufacturing. He called for a paradigm shift on the need to promote skilled trades as a respectable profession and a realization that not all Americans want to (or should) pursue four-year degrees.

And this morning I read an article on the Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project .  The Forum generated 12 interesting facts about innovation that are worth considering.

  1. Innovation drives economic growth and raises wages.
  2. Innovation improves U.S. life expectancy.
  3. Innovation makes technology affordable.
  4. New organizational structures lead to rising standards of living.
  5. New household technologies allow for more time for family and leisure.
  6. The pace of American innovation has slowed during the past four decades.
  7. Innovation has failed to increase wages for a substantial number of Americans.
  8. Significant barriers to innovation exist in the government and private sectors.
  9. Federal support for R&D has declined in recent years.
  10. Relatively few U.S. college students study fields critical to innovation.
  11. American women are less likely to continue in STEM fields than men.
  12. U.S. policy makes it difficult for international students to stay and work.

My Opinion

I am beginning to believe manufacturing is actually a key enabler of, not a competitor to innovation. I think the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” has merit. If you make things, you can more readily see the opportunities for practical innovation and are more likely to find innovative solutions to immediate problems that can have reapplication potential in other industries. I also think manufacturing helps create a culture that encourages and fosters innovative thinking and behavior.

I don’t believe the discussion should center on manufacturing OR innovation. I believe it should be focused on creating an economy that values manufacturing AND innovation. I also worry that other countries are sharpening their innovation skills by embracing manufacturing as a key driver.

To me innovation is rooted in a need and passion for problem solving. Manufacturing is a perfect (although admittedly not the only) functional area for problem solving behavior to be nourished and flourish. I learned a lot from my manufacturing colleagues at P&G about Total Quality methods that were invaluable help to me in diagnosing and solving management problems. The applied mathematics behind their work was as relevant as what I saw from my R&D colleagues, and I equally appreciated both.

What are Your Thoughts?

I am still in the learning mode and would appreciate your thoughts and any online references you think are worth reading. Sorting this issue out will likely have a profound impact on the direction of America’s economic future. Like all issues worth discussing, there is no easy or obvious answer. Your thoughts will help shape and inform the discussion, so thanks in advance for leaving a comment.

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