When I became editor of IndustryWeek in early 2009, the United States had been suffering in the Great Recession for more than a year. American manufacturing lost nearly a million jobs in 2008. As a journalist, I was all too familiar with industries undergoing painful transformations. New technologies, layoffs, reorganizations, change at a dizzying pace. Yeah, that was familiar ground to cover.
Luckily, I attended IW’s Best Plants conference a couple months after my appointment. What I witnessed were leaders who were not pollyannish about this economic body blow but who had faith in U.S. manufacturing and its ability to compete.
Facing increasing pressure to do more with less, these leaders doubled down on lean manufacturing and other continuous improvement efforts. They were riveted by IW Best Plants’ keynote speaker John Shook, a former Toyota executive and lean researcher, who spoke on how to use A3 to improve the understanding of plant issues and address them with a firm focus on facts.
Lean leaders such as Shook were intent on changing manufacturing culture in the U.S. They wanted companies to focus on the customer, improve processes and eliminate waste. Perhaps most importantly, they stressed the need for employees to become partners in continuous improvement, adept at coping with change.
Automation was nothing new in factories, but the digitization of manufacturing, variously known as the Industrial Internet of Things or Manufacturing 4.0, promised a revolution in how they operated. Workplaces invested in advanced machining and robotics, additive manufacturing and redesigned workflows all tied together by the pervasive use of sensors, analytics and cloud computing. Manufacturing attracted increased attention from Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon and other tech giants precisely because it was becoming high-tech itself.
The introduction of exciting technologies such as collaborative robots and 3D printers couldn’t have come at a better time, for they were weapons in the fight against an existential threat to U.S. manufacturing—its public image. By the time that IW Best Plants conference started, the industry had seen its employment drop from 17.8 million in April 1990 to just 12 million and had shuttered thousands of factories, in many cases decimating communities and families. Most millennials and their parents thought it was dumb to prepare for a factory job, no matter how smart the factory might be.
At the same time, baby boomers were leaving the workforce in droves. Manufacturers needed to attract fresh talent to run their computerized factory floors and global supply chains. Good-bye, “Not Hiring” signs. Hello, National Manufacturing Day.
For much of my tenure at IndustryWeek, we covered the debate over whether the U.S, was undergoing a manufacturing renaissance. While your answer will depend on the yardstick you use, we can agree that both Democratic and Republican administrations have understood the value of manufacturing and worked to strengthen it. Jobs have slowly climbed back to nearly 13 million and more companies are reevaluating their supply chains, to the benefit of domestic production.
By the time I left IW in 2018, talk of manufacturing being “dead" had been silenced, but the work to make it thrive was far from over. Thankfully, millions across America have faith they can make it happen.
Steve Minter was chief editor of IndustryWeek from 2009 to 2012 and then executive editor until 2018. Previously, he was publisher and editorial director of EHS Today. He enjoys fiction writing, golden retrievers and travel where the ocean meets the land.