Economists and other prognosticators foresee a more permanent North American manufacturing renaissance in 2013. In the United States, a recent survey by the Institute of Supply Management found that manufacturing revenue is on track to grow 4.6% this year while capital expenditures are due to grow 7.6%.
Much of the gains will be led by technology, asserts Carnegie Mellon economist Allan Meltzer. Natural gas miners could see gains from fertilizer or chemical production, Meltzer said in an interviewwith the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Creative use of tools is key.
There are exceptions, of course. Apple made headlines when executives there said it would use contract manufacturing partner Foxconn to build some new systems in the U.S. Rival Research In Motion still uses Canadian assembly partner Celestica, but that, too, appears to be changing.
So are the rules of the game when it comes to North American manufacturing. Any renaissance is bound to be at a smaller scale or the result of entirely new efforts born of creative desperation. Manufacturing just isn’t the business it used to be.
Some companies will no doubt fail to capitalize on opportunities amid the chaos. Others will find and fill profitable gaps in the market. Here are five tips for increasing your odds of winning:
1. Set up an experimental arm. Don’t change everything at once. Instead, embrace the incremental. Devise a nimble unit for taking on new, tech-driven projects at a smaller scale. Think of it as a way to train employees in new techniques while earning a little revenue for the effort.
2. Give direct incentive for workers to learn new skills. Set up a recognition program that scales up to meet fast learners as they grow. Make it personal, meaningful, and clear so that high achievers know what to expect from their efforts.
3. Get closer to clients and prospects. Suggest a program whereby your manufacturing workers spend days on site with client design teams to better understand the thinking behind the products they’re making. Go see the technology behind the technology.
4. Try 3-D printing. Really. If this is the future then it's time to at least dabble. Give floor workers the task of playing R&D team by devising ways to use the technology to improve process. Make it a contest where the most productive experiments kick off rewards.
5. Take down the walls. Make this the year that design and production merge. Forget having different departments. Treat manufacturers as creators and designers as builders. Let them collaborate more frequently. If you're an outsourcer, try inviting designers to the factory for a monthly lunch and suggest your line workers get equal time off-site.
Every turn of the calendar brings new hope, and thereby, new possibilities. Embrace the optimism. Be creative but think small. Embrace experiments. Move slowly but deliberately, giving workers a stake in the changing dynamics of the industry.
And remember that there are no guarantees. Change is just as likely to introduce problems as productivity. Be patient, track progress, and keep moving forward.
John Mills is executive vice president of Business Development at Rideau Recognition Solutions, a global leader in employee rewards and recognition programs designed to motivate and increase engagement and productivity across the workforce.