What U.S. Manufacturers Can Learn from Europe—One Reporter’s Perspective

4/29/10

On March 29 MIT arranged a round table seminar entitled “The Future of Manufacturing Innovation—Advanced Technologies.” The seminar focused on technological advances that could spur manufacturing in the U.S.

MIT president Susan Hockfield opened the afternoon by reflecting on the status of the U.S. as a manufacturing nation. “Many Americans tend to believe that hardly anything is made in the U.S. anymore, and that all manufacturing has moved to China or other countries with low wages,” she said. “But by reinventing manufacturing capabilities and processes, the U.S. could create 17 to 20 million new jobs.”

Is this realistic? Can Western countries with high-paid jobs really compete with countries like China and India where the cost of labor is lower?

“Yes. Just look at Germany and Japan,” Hockfield said.

Coming from Sweden with a background in engineering, and having covered European industry for many years for publications such as VerkstadsForum, Verkstäderna, and Automation, I believe that Hockfield may be right, but that the United States has much to do in order stay competitive. Just look at the figures: in 2009 the U.S had a trade deficit of almost $227 billion with China alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s foreign trade statistics. Over the last three years, 10 percent of the U.S. manufacturing workforce was laid off, MIT political scientist Suzanne Berger pointed out at the seminar.

Workers at a Haldex drive train plantWhile I don’t mean to sound like a preachy outsider, a number of practices that I’ve observed from my time covering European manufacturers, particularly in my native Scandinavia, could be useful as the United States seeks to rebuild or reinforce its own manufacturing infrastructure.

Consistent information handling during a product’s entire lifecycle is an often underestimated but vital component if we want to keep manufacturing profitable. Being able to master small batch production, even of complex and high-tech goods, in order to meet individual customers needs, is another key to staying competitive.  This is easier said than done. America is adapted to economies of scale, a tradition dating back to the days of Henry Ford. Certainly the U.S. has a huge home market, but this has probably delayed the adoption of small, efficient batch manufacturing essential in smaller countries and markets, such as the Nordic ones.

Once that is mastered, customization becomes, if not easy, at least more achievable. Customization, in turn, demands consistent information, with software solutions holding and updating product data correctly, through the product’s entire life cycle. Systems that can do this must … Next Page »

Eva Regårdh is a tech journalist from Sweden. She is an Innovation Journalism Fellow 2010 at Stanford University and is working for Xconomy during her fellowship. Follow @

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