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Manufacturers in Respirator Masks

Tumult and Progress: The Impossible Success of an Impossible Year

Dec. 23, 2020
The world changed around us in a flash this year. The floors fell through. Everything could have failed. Everything could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t.

Cleaning out my closet last night, I stumbled across a shiny new suitcase I’d completely forgotten about. This was a gift from my wife last Christmas—a beautiful, rolly, hard-shelled thing intended to replace the gross old duffel bag I’ve been hauling around for the past decade.

It was really a perfect gift—2020 was IndustryWeek’s 50th anniversary, a milestone year we’d intended to celebrate in grand fashion. There would be a cross-country tour of plant visits, appearances at conferences and events all over the world, there was even talk of an Olympics-style torch run all the way down to the Manufacturing & Technology conference in Orlando. There were big plans for this little suitcase and all the thousands of miles it would travel.

But here it remains, in the back of the closet, factory stickers still in place.

The discovery of it sent me down a dangerous path, exploring all of those could-have-beens and should-have-beens of 2020. Everything was set for an amazing year—there was the anniversary celebration for us, a booming economy, just a few distinct issues in the manufacturing industry to fight through, and we had an election cycle that promised to finally place economic and manufacturing polices in the spotlight. Footing was solid, potential was rich—it was going to be a fantastic year. I had this new bag and was ready to hit the road hard.

But none of that happened, of course. COVID-19 and the global response to it grounded us all, along with any hopes, dreams or grand visions we brought to 2020.

These are dangerous thoughts. They are crushing thoughts. There is so much we wanted to do— so much I personally wanted to do—and none of it, none of it happened. Looking at it like that, the whole of 2020 can seem like a waste. A lost year. A strategic asterisk to end all strategic asterisks. It invites the ideas that, because none of our plans worked out, nothing worked out; that, because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, nothing was accomplished.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, we are closing 2020 in a completely different reality than we entered it. Forget 2019, forget all those amazing pre-COVID plans we brought with us. An examination of 2020 as its own reality, in isolation from all the long-term strategies that predated it, reveals a list of accomplishments, innovations and breakthroughs that shouldn’t have been possible, that wouldn’t have been possible in any other year.

Just flipping through IndustryWeek’s November/December issue gives us a good sense of this. From Ford’s transition from making cars to saving lives to manufacturers tapping into new talent to finally help close the skills gap to exciting new greenfield construction across the industry to the wild implementations of new automation, AI and smart manufacturing technologies behind it all, the manufacturing industry accomplished some phenomenal and, I’d say, world-changing things this year. None of them were goals, none of them were plans, none of them fit into the strategies of yesteryear, but all of them carried enormous impact.

The world changed around us in a flash this year. The floors fell through. Any of it could have failed. Everything could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t.

Instead, I believe 2020—for all its trauma and all its awfulness—will be remembered as one of the greatest years in manufacturing history. It was a year when, faced with unprecedented challenges, the industry stepped up and showed the world what agility really means. It was a time when workers rallied together, covering each other through all their struggles, relearning their businesses and finding footing in very slippery terrain. It was a time when executives proved their worth, implementing new plans on the fly, connecting with their workforces and getting their hands dirty to keep the world (and their businesses) together. It was a year when my own team here, like teams all across the world, dug in and did the impossible.

I began this year with a column outlining the “monumental task before us,” in which I marveled at the opportunities and challenges of a new decade and of the new epoch for IW. The monumental task, it turned out, was far more monumental than I could have guessed. And, looking back on it, I’m overwhelmed at the realization of just how well we’ve all stood up to it.

So now I banish the poisoned thoughts of what could have been. This suitcase, a year old now, remains fresh and new. It didn’t fulfill its mission this year, but around it, a whole world of unexpected missions, goals and duties were successfully accomplished, all of them impossible and unimaginable just a year ago.

That’s how I’m making peace with all the tumult of 2020. Forgetting what could have been, forgetting the opportunities lost and focusing instead on the miracles we’ve made along the way. This suitcase can wait. It, and all the plans it carries, can be stored back for another year. 

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