Manufacturing: Leaner and ...

Upon returning from National Manufacturing Week at Chicago's McCormick Place a few weeks back, I had mixed feelings about the state of U.S. industry. On the one hand, I saw a lot of neat things on the technology front, but on the other, I was disturbed by the size of the show. Being accustomed to an event that spans both North and South Halls of the massive facility, I was more than a little su...

03/01/2004


Upon returning from National Manufacturing Week at Chicago's McCormick Place a few weeks back, I had mixed feelings about the state of U.S. industry. On the one hand, I saw a lot of neat things on the technology front, but on the other, I was disturbed by the size of the show. Being accustomed to an event that spans both North and South Halls of the massive facility, I was more than a little surprised to see the entire event compressed into the South Hall—including registration and all nine cars of Siemen's Exider technology train. Representatives from the National Assn. of Manufacturers (NAM), however, were upbeat and considerably more optimistic than they were a year ago, when at their annual press conference they predicted the economy, the war in Iraq and spiraling health-care costs threatened a "crisis" for the sector. This year, when NAM released the results of its annual membership survey, it was a rosier outlook. For example, 63% of the 430 responding members said they anticipated no layoffs in 2004, and 31% said they even expect to add new workers. Furthermore, survey respondents indicated they expect production to jump by more than 6% this year, up considerably from 2003's 2.7% growth rate. That being said, NAM's survey also reported that 80% of the respondents only expected a see 2% growth in the national GDP.

But one thing is certain in this rough spot in the economic cycle: Manufacturers have gotten efficient at running their operations, which may explain the smaller and less glitzy booths. Much of this can be attributed to "lean" practices implemented by many manufacturers. Originating from Toyota in the late 1970s, lean practices, at its most basic, is a philosophy of targeting wasteful processes on the manufacturing floor. It's helped companies like electrical/communications cabinet manufacturer Hoffman keep its Minneapolis-area facility in the U.S. and not in Mexico. Likewise, a recent tour of luminaire manufacturer Holophane's Columbus, Ohio facility also uncovered that smarter plant operations are helping offset a down economy.

This certainly bodes well for the future, whenever the business cycle heads back up again, because of what's coming technology-wise. The Exider tour revealed a lot of cutting-edge systems that right now can tie and automate production, warehousing, packaging and shipping (see News p. 12). This is also good news for consulting engineers in that you're in a position to help manufacturers implement both lean practices and automated processes. For example, Betty Jackson, up at Hoffman's plant, told me a big part of the company's success in fully implementing lean practices included common sense engineering such as better lighting and creating a positive air pressure to keep dirt and dust down. And in the realm of ever-increasing factory floor technology, as our cover story attests, the role of the M/E/P engineer is even more critical today, as infrastructure and plant floor process systems must be designed in tandem, or sometimes in reverse. Obviously, those who can help manufacturers go from just plain lean to lean, mean fighting machines will be remembered when prosperity returns.





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