First Up -- What is Advanced Manufacturing?

A tour of Virginia manufacturers offers insights into this diverse category.

When I was invited recently by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to tour several advanced manufacturing sites in Virginia, two things occurred. First, I quickly accepted the offer to visit an array of leading-edge manufacturers. Second, I started wondering what "advanced manufacturing" means.

According to the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, advanced manufacturing involves "those manufacturers who are innovating in how they deploy their workforce, technology and supply chains to increase their global competitiveness, their environmental sustainability and the customization of their products and associated services to meet customer demands, whether the product itself is high-tech or low-tech."

That definition provides a useful touchstone as I think about the features of the businesses I visited:

Global. In Roanoke, Australian steel manufacturer and distributor OneSteel Limited has opened a subsidiary called LiteSteel Technologies America that produces a cold-formed steel beam for use in residential and light commercial construction. The factory uses process equipment from Italy, Norway and Japan. LiteSteel says its beams are price-competitive but 40% lighter than hot rolled steel or engineered wood of the same spanning capacity.

Sustainable. Canon has been in Virginia for more than two decades and later this year will begin manufacturing cartridges for laser printers in a new, highly automated 700,000-square-foot facility in Newport News. In January, Canon added 70,000 square feet to its Industrial Resource Technologies facility in Gloucester County, where the company recycles and reclaims toner cartridges and related materials.

Customization. Optical Cable Corp. (OCC) has built a $61 million business since 1983 by creating a wide range of fiber-optic cable products, which are known for being able to operate in harsh environments. President and CEO Neil Wilkin tells the story of how a mining customer in West Virginia ran heavy equipment over the cable and hung 400 pounds on it with no damage. In May 2008, OCC acquired SMP Data Communications, a move that added copper and fiber-optic connectivity products to its line and allowed it to become a solutions provider for the enterprise market.

Supply Chains. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News (NGNN) is the largest industrial employer in Virginia with nearly 19,000 people and sprawling facilities located on more than 550 acres along two miles of waterfront. NGNN's reach extends well beyond the boundaries of the facility. Chris Goush is manager, supply chain procurement, and works with approximately 2,500 suppliers to help ensure that they -- and NGNN -- are successful. Northrop Grumman's supply chain support activities include extensive Web-based training for suppliers and on-site assessments that help companies incorporate lean concepts.

Technology. GE Energy's Salem, Va., facility provides design and system engineering for power generation applications including wind, solar, gasification and nuclear facilities. GE produces 3,000 wind turbines per year. GE Salem is working on projects ranging from an integrated water desalination and power plant in Saudi Arabia to a Duke Energy coal gasification plant in Edwardsport, Ind. But while leading-edge technology is at the heart of this 700-plus-person plant, equally important is an adaptable workforce that has taken lean manufacturing to heart.

These facilities certainly share other traits -- clean, well-organized, safety-conscious, communicative, enthusiastic. While their products differ greatly, these common qualities of workforce, technology and process management set them apart as "advanced" manufacturers.

Steve Minter is IW's chief editor. He is based in Cleveland.

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