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Viewing your shop as the collective capability of its metalworking equipment may not be the best perspective for looking ahead. It's better to see your shop as a flexible resource of materials-working solutions at the customer's disposal.
This shift in focus from metalworking equipment to materials-working solutions is a key part of the transition that John B. Byrd III says is taking place in manufacturing today. Mr. Byrd sees three other keys aspects of this transition. 1. Manufacturing companies will have to make technological leaps to stay ahead, rather than rely on incremental improvements in current technology. 2. Manufacturing companies will have to cope with a fully globalized marketplace. 3. Manufacturing companies will be interconnected through a network of alliances and partnerships.
As president of AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology, Mr. Byrd constantly looks at the direction manufacturing is taking to make sure his organization is providing the leadership its members need. Today, members include a variety of companies involved in all of the elements of manufacturing—design, handling, machining, forming, assembly, inspection and testing, and communications and control.
Although metalworking equipment and machining processes will not disappear, Mr. Byrd sees a widening spectrum of materials and processes that will give manufacturing companies many more options and alternatives. Manufacturing companies today tend to specify certain types of machine tools to build a production process. In the future, however, they will be more likely to seek materials-working solutions. These companies will turn to technology suppliers capable of matching innovative materials with innovative processes to best meet their end-user requirements.
After adapting to international competition, manufacturers will adapt to the opportunities of international markets.
Mr. Byrd points to ongoing trends in automobile and aircraft manufacturing as harbingers of this transition. The auto industry, for example, is using less and less steel as a percentage of total vehicle weight. Likewise, the Boeing 787 is being designed as an "all-composite" airplane in which major structural components are made largely of composite materials. Just as manufacturing has steadily moved from steel to aluminum to exotic alloys to composites, so will it move to a new generation of plastics, ceramics, glass, graphite, powder metal and yet-to-be-discovered materials.
Manufacturers committed to implementing materials-working solutions rather than simply installing new equipment will be making the kind of technological leap that Mr. Byrd sees as the pace of the future.
"Companies can't settle for tweaking existing technology," he says. They will have to look for more than the incremental improvements in speeds and feeds that were sufficient to provide a slight but meaningful competitive edge in the past. The emergence of mezzo- (very small) and nano- (microscopic) manufacturing represents the sort of development that shops will leap to in the quest to take the lead in productivity.
Not only must manufacturers prepare to make technological leaps, but they must also cope with competitors around the world who will make similar leaps. There will be little time to rest before another leap is necessary.
One of the leaps that AMT is working hard to advance is the Smart Machine initiative. AMT has created a coalition of manufacturing technology companies and institutions to develop a new generation of computerized control systems. Such systems will enable a "smart" machine to ascertain that it has the capability to produce a part; make intelligent decisions about how to optimize manufacturing steps; monitor and diagnose itself; verify the quality of its production; and store information for refining similar solutions in the future.
The Global Imperative
Although Mr. Byrd acknowledges that few manufacturing companies are unaware of global competition, he believes that many have not yet fully grasped its implications. Both end users and suppliers of manufacturing technology have been preoccupied with fending off the threat of lower-cost products from overseas. The emphasis must now shift to seeking the opportunities that arise when national borders are no longer a barrier, he says. A global manufacturing company is proactive in establishing new markets in emerging countries; is skilled at gathering and interpreting accurate information about these markets; and is committed to adding the language skills, cultural sensitivity and communication tools for global commerce.
AMT's emphasis on global activity is an indication of how important it is to all manufacturing companies. AMT has developed market penetration strategies for nine regions around the world that members can tap into.
Alliances And Partnerships
Few companies will be able to "go it alone" in a global marketplace, says Mr. Byrd. Companies must recognize that success in the future relies on strategic interdependence with other companies, especially those supplying their materials-working solutions. Moreover, no one company will be able to offer the full range of materials and processes from which these solutions will be developed.
Joint ventures and strategic alliances of a fluid nature will allow technology suppliers to provide a deeper level of service to customers. These relationships will enable them to service a broader range of customers in diverse industries.
"Suppliers of manufacturing technology will be better able to anticipate customers' manufacturing challenges and be more responsive when they work together," Mr. Byrd says. Selling equipment based on speeds and feeds is obsolete, he points out. End users will be looking for solutions that reduce cost per part and can drive these savings to the bottom line.
At the moment, many manufacturers are pursuing lean manufacturing techniques to establish a continuous round of waste reduction. However, Mr. Byrd offers a caveat. Although lean manufacturing has a tremendous potential to help companies lower costs, companies must not overlook the importance of constant innovation.
Mr. Byrd quotes Al Frink, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing and Services, who says "without innovation, there is no life after lean." The point is that low cost and high quality are not the only factors buyers demand. They expect the unexpected. They look for products that create possibilities beyond those in the original specifications. Only a commitment to constant innovation can meet this challenge.
Mr. Byrd also warns that the United States is in danger of losing its leadership in innovation. He sees this most clearly in the level of investment that companies are able to devote to research and development in manufacturing innovation. Without access to government funding programs or tax credits, many companies cannot invest in the level of R&D that would result in important breakthroughs.
Innovation is also hampered by the competitive disadvantage imposed by structural costs in the United States. Mr. Byrd notes that U.S. companies must spend 22.4 percent more than their counterparts overseas because of the burden added by taxes, health care mandates, litigation, regulatory and environmental compliance and rising fuel costs. Even acting together, manufacturing companies are not able to address these structural costs adequately; it is up to the federal government to respond with R&D funding, tax relief, regulatory reform and support for manufacturing skills training.
Not Dead, Just Changing
Finally, Mr. Byrd insists that manufacturing will not become extinct in America. "Manufacturing is not dead, just changing," he says. He predicts that companies aggressively and enthusiastically pursuing change will have a good future in manufacturing. These companies must count on new materials and processes to complement traditional machining of steel and other metals. Suppliers of manufacturing technology will have to maintain a strong lead in developing the materials-working solutions that end users will require.