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The fact that we cannot clearly see the future of U.S. manufacturing does not mean that the future will be any less promising.

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The Future of U.S. Manufacturing Is Promising

  • 5/9/2014

I recently attended the 2014 Manufacturing for Growth Meeting in Phoenix. This is a joint conference between the National Tooling and Machining Association, the Precision Metalforming Association, and the Association for Manufacturing Technology. These groups represent the heart and soul of privately held, small- to medium-sized manufacturers that make the parts and components that go into the products we use every day.

The attendees at this conference are a very resilient and seasoned group of business owners and leaders. They have taken the best punches the global economy could throw at them over the past 20 years and come back swinging. They endured a tech bubble in 2000, the post-9/11 economy, and a global credit market crash in 2008 that disrupted almost every supply chain in the world. And yet here they are, working together and talking about the future.

The current challenges we face always seem more daunting than the ones we have overcome. That is human nature.

Manufacturers are resilient but anxious

Don’t let the staying power of these business owners fool you. Deep down, they are anxious. Many are in the sunset of their career, and they question whether their emerging leaders have the strength and adaptability to deal with the challenge of running a manufacturing business.

They’re also not sure whether they want to saddle their children with that responsibility. With emerging technologies such as 3-D printing, these leaders question if their business will be relevant in 10 – 15 years. And even if it is, with a shifting global middle-class, they wonder if manufacturing exclusively in the United States will even be possible.

These are big questions, many of which do not have concrete answers. But the reality is that the current challenges we face always seem more daunting than the ones we have overcome. That is human nature.

No one can see the future

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that in 1900, 41 percent of our population was employed in agriculture. By 2000, that number was less than 2 percent, and yet farmers are producing record amounts of food for a hungry world. If you would have told a room of business leaders this statistic back in 1900, they would have feared for their children’s future and asked, “What are they going to do?” The answer was simple: “Not what our parents did.”

We know now that the 20th century brought about a wave of life-changing innovations and that the future in 1900 was very promising. But from where they stood at the turn of the last century, the future was anything but clear.

Fast forward to today and the same questions exist. When we see innovation, we struggle to see the new opportunities it creates and instead focus on the jobs lost from what will no longer be made. But just like in 1900, the fact that we cannot clearly see the future does not mean that it will not be positive.

Medical breakthroughs create new devices, therapies (and even organs); lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft can go farther for less money; electric vehicles are replacing internal combustion engines; and the personal computer industry is being turned on its ear by “phablets” that combine the best features of smartphones and tablets. These are just a handful of the innovations that U.S. manufacturers will have the opportunity to advance in the coming years. And these are just the ones we know about today!

While we may not be able to clearly see what tomorrow will bring, we often get glimpses of what it could be. And just like in 1900, the future is full of innovation and opportunities for growth.