Manufacturing is at a crossroads. In one sense, there have never been better prospects for the makers of products than there are right now. Innovation is rampant; capital is available; technological changes have enabled new materials and manufacturing processes; and the global standard of living is steadily improving, enabling billions of consumers to buy new and existing products.
Renewed political interest in manufacturing is also evident. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, upon being elected, vowed to protect his nation’s industrial base. There is a similar movement brewing in the United States, driven in part by the idea of reclaiming an American reputation for quality. But these signs of a potentially bright future coexist with an unprecedented and extremely daunting confluence of challenges. The pressures on manufacturing are so great that they threaten to drive a significant number of firms to bankruptcy — especially those that do not fully appreciate the strategic value and distinctive opportunities of manufacturing.
The uncertain future of manufacturing raises fundamental geopolitical questions: How important is industrial capacity to a nation’s well-being? Can older economies ever be great manufacturing bases again? And, if not, can they survive as global powers?
To understand the answers, we must consider the magnitude of the pressures at play, and the trade-offs that manufacturers may have to make in response. One key factor is the scarcity of raw materials. For the first time since World War II, companies face worsening shortages in steel, aluminum, gold, silver, copper, platinum, and even recycled materials. Mining and processing facilities cannot keep up with ballooning economic growth worldwide. According to a Yale University study, every last bit of copper still unmined, plus all the copper currently in use, would be needed simply to bring the developing world to parity with industrial nations in quality of life. Silver, increasingly needed for such innovations as solar cell production, faces a similar shortfall.
Meanwhile, order backlogs for new factory machines have skyrocketed since 2004 as developing countries have significantly increased demand. These factors add urgency to the challenge of developing new processes and equipment.
Labor shortages provide another challenge. By 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, there will be only two workers to support the pensions of each retiree in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France — down from three and a half workers per retiree in 2000. And as unemployment shrinks, manufacturing will have to find ways to attract motivated and capable employees. Today’s companies are already being affected. A tube and fitting manufacturer in northern Italy had enjoyed double-digit revenue gains from expanding sales in China. But when product demand jumped, the company could not find enough trained welders in the region. Eventually it imported a contingent of Romanian workers, but unless conditions change, even those welders may soon prefer to work for Starbucks.
And who can blame them? In most plants, industrial relations and treatment of the workforce are reminiscent of the 19th century. From 1999 to 2004, there were more strikes in most Western European countries than occurred between 1950 and 1975, when labor unions were at the peak of their influence. And the success rate of programs that are in part implemented to engage the workforce in sweeping bottom-up reforms — programs such as total quality management, Six Sigma, and Continuous Improvement — is mixed at best.
Manufacturers have also been hit by their own success in providing product variety. Even such simple products as plastic tubes have proliferated. For decades, only one type of tubing was sold for plumbing installations such as floor heating systems. Now, some tubes bend; others keep a rigid shape. Some are lined with recycled composites, others with aluminum. And although most will be buried under flooring, they come in black, white, gray, and yellow. Such complexity is often the single biggest cost driver in factories, but few companies calculate its impact or reorganize to meet it. In the auto industry, only one in five production lines can accommodate multiple types of cars, and this industry is said to be the front-runner in the race toward flexible manufacturing.