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

4/29/10

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give people—in production, invoicing, manufacturing, after-market, service and eventually dismantling—the right information when they need it, efficiently, or profit will vanish.

Simulation is often used as a tool to move successfully down this road. Being able to model different possibilities for design, production, cycle times, and so forth, in a computing environment speeds up time to market and reduces the need for costly and time consuming prototypes. Volvo Cars in Gothenburg, Sweden, for instance, simulates its entire production line, down to every tool, before any new model or change is applied. This, combined with just-in-time-production, makes it possible for the company to let customers configure their own personal car to a high degree.

In order to succeed with customization workers need to be plugged in to the information flow, which calls for an educated work force. Without skills in handling and interpreting complex information on all levels, customization will simply be too slow and costly.

Power transformers at an ABB plant in Ludvika, SwedenIn Germany, ordinary manufacturing workers  are paid more than in the U.S. The same holds true for many other countries in Europe, as well as Japan. My impression is that while there are excellent universities and many skilled engineers in America, the majority of the workforce here is too poorly educated to meet the demands of today’s  industry.

Finally, recycling may not be crucial today, but it will be. I believe customers will ask continually not only for personalized but also environmentally friendly products. Government regulations will also mandate recycling. The usual product-development process must thus steer away from a linear approach to a more circular one that moves materials from their origins back to their sources. How to recycle and dismantle individual components in a product must be considered early in the design phase—which calls, in turn, for skills in advanced information handling.

In short, if U.S. manufacturing industries expect to succeed in creating millions of new jobs, they have some homework to do.

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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