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Manufacturing fuels innovation

Editorial | November 1, 2017 | By:

And I know this happens because I took economics, and I’d explain it to ya, but I flunked that course. Not my fault. They taught it at 8 o’clock in the morning. And there is absolutely nothing you can learn out of one bloodshot eye.   ~Lewis Black

When I was in college, I took a few courses in economics, mostly because the University of Minnesota had the idea that journalists should have a wide basis of knowledge to draw upon before they start besieging the public, so we had to spend a certain amount of time on the sciences, sociology, politics and economics before dealing with the real challenges of a career (gerunds, participles, dangling modifiers). Like most 18-year-olds, I knew everything. Economics? Supply and demand. Bullets or butter. You graduate and get a job. Simple, at least for us middle-class folk.

So I got a job, and if I didn’t get smarter (everything at 18, remember) I did come to focus more on macroeconomics in order to understand micro. A manufacturing economy gave way to a service economy and then to the age of information. As manufacturing raises the standards of living, workers are able to buy more goods, and the economic engine shifts from production to consumption.

As advanced economies recover from the Great Recession, production and hiring (in manufacturing and the services necessary to support it) have accelerated. But in the long run, manufacturing’s share of employment will probably remain under pressure, due to improvements in productivity, faster growth in services (and information), and the impetus of global competition, which is pushing advanced economies to specialize in activities requiring more advanced technologies and more skilled employees.

In our October 2017 issue, automation and productivity was the overriding theme of the product submissions: speed, efficiency, versatility and economy. “Industry 4.0: physical products, digital enterprises?” on page 60 of this issue takes it another step, showcasing the “smart factory” of the future in which machines, sensors, data and people must interconnect. At IFAI Expo 2017, the exhibit hall featured the “Manufacturing for Good” booth (see page 68), where equipment and fabric manufacturers and show attendees interconnected to make products to be put to immediate use—helping  disadvantaged youth in the New Orleans area.

Manufacturing funds innovation, and industry consortiums bring together industry, academia and government to develop technology that (we hope) will benefit all kinds of businesses (and all kinds of employees), in a spirit of cooperative competition that supersedes the “winner take all” mentality. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently profiled a five-year-old company called “Woodchuck U.S.A.,” based in an old factory that now houses more than 20 small businesses. Woodchuck designs wood-encased gifts, with a made-in-America theme and an environmental twist: for each product sold, a tree is planted.

Maybe, sometimes, it still is that simple.

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