In many ways, December is an appropriate time of year to present the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame's latest class of inductees.

As another year draws to a close, it's a time when many of us pause for reflection, take stock of what -- and who -- is most important to us in our lives, and set courses for the new year ahead.

Now in its fourth year, the IW Manufacturing Hall of Fame gives us an opportunity to reflect on what -- and who -- is most important to the world of manufacturing. 

For many of us, the "what" can be characterized with words such as "integrity," "innovation," "customer focus," "leadership" and "continuous improvement" -- constructs that have served as foundational elements for some of the most successful manufacturers in America.  

See Also: Manufacturing Hall of Fame 2011: In a Class by Themselves

As for who is most important to U.S. manufacturing, we humbly suggest that the IW Manufacturing Hall of Fame is a logical starting point.

Much like our previous Hall of Fame classes, the Class of 2012 is an eclectic group with unique stories, diverse skill sets and distinct personalities. But the common thread is that all of the individuals in this year's class are important to manufacturing, because manufacturing would not be the same without them.

Take Robert Curl, whose co-discovery of the "buckyball" in 1985 paved the way for a new field of chemistry -- nanotechnology -- that is profoundly changing the products we make and the way we make them.

Then there's Art Byrne, the former Wiremold Co. CEO who demonstrated that with committed, hands-on leadership, any company can unlock the full potential of lean and create lasting value for customers and employees alike. 

And there's Paul O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa Inc. (IW 500/48). O'Neill proved that by focusing on the safety of a manufacturer's most important asset -- its workers -- a company can make dramatic gains in productivity and profitability. 

Likewise, with Norm Augustine, Lewis Campbell, Scott Crump, Dick Dauch, Doc Hall and Jim McNerney, we celebrate the careers of a group that has left an indelible mark on U.S. manufacturing. 

By reflecting on the past accomplishments of these individuals, we hope that our present manufacturing leaders will be inspired to challenge their organizations to achieve, innovate and grow in ways that create a bright future for U.S. manufacturing -- something that should be important to all of us.

For a full list of IndustryWeek's Manufacturing Hall of Fame 2012 Inductees, click here.