Thought Leaders -- Rebuilding the Manufacturing Industry

AMT's Bob Simpson believes manufacturing's most pressing need right now is attracting more young people.

As the new president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), Bob Simpson not only presides over one of the oldest trade organizations in the country (AMT was founded in 1902), but one of the biggest industrial trade shows as well -- the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), which drew more than 90,000 attendees this past fall to see machine tools and cutting equipment, robotic and automation systems, software and solutions, and an up-close look at the future of manufacturing technology.

Simpson brings 25 years of manufacturing operations experience to his new role, having previously served as corporate vice president and president, Global Plastics Machinery, for Milacron Inc. Prior to that, he served as president of Siegel-Robert Automotive Inc. (a 2006 IW Best Plants winner) and held executive positions within Textron and TRW.

The following conversation took place at the IMTS 2008 show in Chicago.

IW: Is it inevitable that, as the country's productivity and our ability to do more with automation and technology gets better, that the number of people required to use the machinery itself is going to keep decreasing?

Bob Simpson: First and foremost our members believe that our top priority, one in which they need AMT's help on, is getting qualified workers in the future. So there's not a shortage. If anything, we need to cultivate more young people to rise to an interest in manufacturing.

Some jobs that we lose shift more or less geographically. Take a look at automotive. The Big Three is no longer really the Big Three. Geographically look at where they're located. Just in the state of Michigan there are a lot of people looking for work. When a company says they have a job available in the southern parts of the United States or the western parts of the United States, there is some reluctance [by workers] to move there. I realize they have families there, they have kids, it's where they've been their entire lives. In some degrees I can understand why there's some reluctance. But the point is, there are jobs available.

Now how do we help teach, how do we help demonstrate or show people where the jobs are so we can continue on and be the industrial power that we have been? No matter what, if you look over history, the super-economic powers have all had a strong manufacturing base. Every one of them, with the United States being at the top.

IW: So how do you get more people involved in manufacturing as a career?

Simpson: We had a great student summit to start out the IMTS show. We had high school kids and college kids coming, and that's what we need to do. Everyone that talks about the future of manufacturing starts off with the fact of changing and getting the interest of young people involved in it. In some cases young people say, Oh, manufacturing is dirty, it's this and that,' but if you take a look at things today, it's not that dirty any more. The green environmental effect, the safety aspects -- manufacturing is much safer today than it ever was before. We need to enlighten people about that.

But the heart of your question is still a concern because there's that need for skilled labor. And the thing of it is, is that a person who just reports to a machine is not the type of labor that's needed any more. It's a person with computer skills, or with some other capability. We need to empower people on that technology. Where you used to have maybe five machines with five people on them, now you've got one person and that machine is doing five different things. And there's an experience level, a knowledge that people have to gain to run that piece of equipment effectively.

IW: What market pressures will come to bear over the next couple of years?

Simpson: If you take a look at U.S. manufacturing, it's a world of vanishing boundaries. While we talk about the [weakening of the] U.S. dollar, in some ways it's helped us export more of our equipment. It allows us to introduce more technology out there. When we talk with people from China, Japan, India, Russia and various European countries here [at IMTS], they all want the technology that we have in the United States. Every one of them. So we're hoping that with whatever new administration that we have that we can help the U.S. manufacturing base become a global leader with the type of equipment and technology that we have here.

IW: What's your prognosis for the future of U.S. manufacturing, then?

Simpson: My kids are 24, 22 and 20, and whatever I can do to help make their future brighter, that's what I want to do. It's encouraging to see the projects that people are working on, and why they're working on it, whether it be in the aerospace industry or medical equipment or automotive. People are asking us things like: "How do I make myself or my business more profitable? How do I gain access to India or China or somewhere else overseas? How do I improve this manufactured part?" We hope the technology and the know-how and the testimonials of other companies will encourage people to consider their options, and U.S. manufacturing again catches fire.

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