The Coming Manufacturing Renaissance

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Jennifer Read, Charlie Barnhart Associates (CBA), examines potential sustainable economic growth for electronics companies and manufacturing in general, with a trend in the new generation of students toward making real things. Let's face it. Whether you think the official recession is over or not, the global economy is not in such great shape. U.S. consumers are severely tapped out, and some major changes will have to occur before a growth engine replacement will be found. As one pundit put it recently, most of the “green shoots” in the global economy have been the direct result of “manure” coming from government stimulus programs and are unsustainable at the current deficit spending levels. They are throwing money at the same tired industries that have failed the requirement for sustainable economic health: housing, construction, banking, healthcare. A sustainable recovery will require serious realignment in the investment priorities and assumptions of the policy makers and resource managers, as well as different decision-making at the grassroots level. Ultimately, an economy is a snapshot of the sum total of what people who have a choice (typically the brightest people) at a given point in time have chosen to do to make a living and to spend that income. When people decide to do something else, things can reverse course quite dramatically. That's what makes forecasting a challenge. In the U.S., we are living with the consequence of the general wisdom that holds factories are dirty and a service economy is better, specifically marketing, finance, insurance, banking and general paper-pushing. But if you spend some time with the Facebook generation, you will get a sense that maybe this is changing. A Wall St. Journal article, titled "Tinkering Makes a Comeback," posits that “making cool stuff” is looking like a better career option. The article quotes an MIT professor saying, "I've been here 23 years and I definitely see this trend back to hands-on. A lot of people are pretty disappointed with an image of a career in finance and they're looking for a career that's real." The article cites as evidence the mushrooming of engineering playground co-ops called “hackerspaces” that have sprung up around the globe. For a monthly fee, engineering students or just everyday folks can work on inventions, using available tools, components, equipment and the shared knowledge of fellow enthusiasts. The cost of essential equipment like CNC metal working machines has become so affordable that these coops have been able to re-ignite the inventing spirit in Everyman. This is heartening, so we decided to do a little informal, non-scientific research to verify the trend. I spoke to some engineering students I know. One junior at Arizona State University confirmed that he has quite a workshop set up in his dorm room; in fact he operates a cell phone repair business, buying online and repairing for resale to earn some extra money. He notes that a Hackerspace community called “'Heatsync Labs'” is forming in Tempe. When asked about his future vocation, he comments, "I can't wait to get out of school and start making things that are useful to people. I don't want to just make things rich people can buy, I want to solve problems.” Hackerspaces and budding capitalism are not the only outlets for this impulse. At Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, the robotics club is always on the lookout for discarded items to enable their many projects. A group of students recently found a floor scrubber in the dumpster, and you would have thought it was spring break in Ft. Lauderdale. Next month, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, is scheduled to launch a partnership with Lockheed Martin modeled after the famous "Skunkworks" program. Skunkworks got its start in 1943 when Kelly Johnson was charged with developing the top secret P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter plane. That group operated out of a rented circus tent near a plastics manufacturing plant that produced a strong odor. Hence the name. The hallmark of the organization was the ability to bypass corporate bureaucracy in favor of getting innovative products completed and into production. The SMU version of the program will apply the same spirit to solving real problems of infrastructure construction, clean energy, and so forth, in a brand-new laboratory that probably doesn't smell that bad. There are plenty of reasons to expect a renaissance in innovation and manufacturing across the globe. Many electronics OEMs and EMS companies are likely already actively seeking out and supporting these initiatives on campuses and in communities through donations of time and resources. One CBA client, Jabil Circuits, operates a facility in Tempe, AZ, close to ASU. They work with the industrial engineering department, sponsoring senior projects and interns to give students hands-on experience. We'd love to hear about other programs. Let us know what you are doing by commenting on the CBA blog,

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