The National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing recently issued a report to government and industry leaders, describing what it thinks the U.S. must do to maintain its current standard of living. In a nutshell, the coalition is calling for an industrial transformation that will make the U.S. competitive on a manufacturing basis with any and all countries, including low-wage China.

Linking America’s future to manufacturing may seem presumptuous, that is, until you read through some of the data in the report. For starters, manufacturing accounts for roughly 71% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the same percentage of exports. Tally up all the business we do here — including electronics, biotech, banking, telecommunications, entertainment, and agriculture — and you’ll find manufacturing atop the list at 29%. In all, it employs over 16.5 million people, each of whom support three additional jobs. Manufacturing also pays for 67% of all R&D, 75% counting industrial research under government contract. Though often overlooked, it is also a major consumer of information and communication technology, and plays a prominent role in national security.

Now for the bad news and why the report was issued in the first place: The consumption of cheap imported products — those made in China alone — has created a surging trade deficit that’s costing the U.S. over $1 billion per day. American manufacturing has absorbed the brunt of this deficit, suffering 32 consecutive months of job loss for a total of 2.3 million jobs — 90% of all jobs lost in the U.S. in the last three years. Meanwhile, the salaries and benefits of the mounting number of unemployed (over and above the deficit) are being sucked in by the profiteers and deal makers who are exploiting currency and wage differentials at the expense of most other Americans, including you and me.

To stem the tide and protect the many from the unprincipled few, NACFAM suggests that industry and government set and aggressively pursue two basic goals. One is increase labor productivity by accelerating the use of advanced technologies; the other is leverage national resources through a major expansion of public/private partnerships.

To accomplish the first goal, the coalition recommends the following actions:
• accelerate the depreciation of investments in new hardware and software
• increase federal investment in manufacturing science and technology research
• incentivize American workers to keep pace with technology.

NACFAM is clear, and right on the money, in what it means by “advanced technology.” It includes:

Software reconfigurable tools and systems — single tools or machines that can perform multiple functions not anticipated in the original design and without requiring new tool production.

Solid free-form fabrication — the rapid creation of solid objects through the deposition of raw materials in a controlled, systematic fashion.

Advanced sensors — devices that respond to external stimuli and send corresponding information in real-time to monitoring, diagnostic, and actuation systems.

Micro-fabrication — the creation of materials and parts through the manipulation of matter at the molecular level.

Modeling, simulation, and visualization — the ability to build and test virtual (computer-based) parts, processes, and systems, simulating their interactions with each other and their environment.

Smart systems — computerintegrated, electromechanical components combined in intelligent systems with the capacity to learn.

Designer materials — property-changing substances tailored for specific jobs; for example, an airfoil that responds to flow by altering its shape or a synthetic fluid that adapts to pressure and temperature variations.

Once the use of these advanced technologies reaches critical mass, says the report, the U.S. will have the ability to produce highly individualized goods on a mass scale. This new breed of personalized products would likely ward off competition from ordinary imports.

The result: a lower trade deficit, maybe even an advantage. The entire plan, naturally, hinges on hitting a window of opportunity. If NACFAM doesn’t accomplish its second goal, none of this will happen quickly enough to make a difference. And the second goal may prove to be the most difficult.

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What NACFAM is asking for and America needs is:
• the formation of industry-led, government-enabled consortia like those, such as Sematech, that operate in the semiconductor industry
• intervention to decrease supply chain vulnerability and support the nation’s smaller suppliers through effective trade agreements
• a voice, an office, in the federal government to ensure the continuation of manufacturing-friendly public policies.

The entire plan makes so much sense and is so doable that some in government will probably oppose it just for the sport of it. I don’t mean to go on a tangent, but every time I turn on C-SPAN I am reminded that Washington is run largely by self-important lawyers-turnedleaders who like to hear themselves speak — even when they have nothing to say.

Others in government will simply stall so they don’t have to reveal their elitist attitudes. These are the ones who “feel our pain,” but would be lying to say they ever experienced it. In their worldview, they and others of their pedigree are the only hope. If their America is to be saved, it will be through litigation and legislation, by “slick Willy’s” decked in wingtips and business suits, not by an army of “average Joe’s” doing factory work in metalchip encrusted steel-toes and dirty shop uniforms.

NACFAM’s strongest opposition, however, will come from politicians taking a more practical stand. Some in government, the globally minded, think America is already too rich and powerful. The uneven playing field killing our manufacturing is partly their work, done in the name of equalizing global wealth. Fighting alongside these global reformers will be yet another group. They will throw the biggest fit, and why not. The trade imbalance is their secret little gold mine. They may not be pocketing cash directly, but you can bet they have their hands in the deep pockets of lobbyists and others that are.

As for me, I’m behind NACFAM, and if you feel the same way, please get in touch with someone in the organization to learn more. You can call (202) 429-2220 (ask for Fred Wentzel), fax (202) 429- 2422, or visit the NACFAM website at www.nacfam.org. Remember, every day you wait, America loses another billion dollars and over 2,000 manufacturing jobs. Enough is enough.

– Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com