I walked into the shop, and my first reaction was a sinking feeling. What had I gotten myself into?
The visit was quite a long time ago, so it’s all right for me to say this now: The shop looked like a hole in the wall—or a hole in the industrial park. I was visiting to write an article about an interesting way the shop was using a particular tool. I had talked to the shop owner by phone, concluding that the lead was worthy of a plane ticket. But now here I was, and the shop did not look like a place that would be doing sophisticated or exemplary work.
I’ve had that initial reaction other times, upon first arriving at a production facility. The reaction is usually wrong. It was wrong in this case.
The owner met me, extending a hand. He wore a faded work shirt. He led me in, the machine noise surrounding us. And as soon as he started picking up parts and cutters to illustrate his points, it became obvious: This guy knows his stuff. He spoke with confidence and clarity about saving time and maintaining precision. He didn’t notice how often he sounded ingenious. Spaces were clear near every busy machine in the shop, but other than that, the equipment was grimy and the peripheral spaces were full of mounded clutter. The simple reason was that it just was not in this man’s makeup to give attention to appearance.
The worth of manufacturing is a topic that is receiving popular attention lately. People see this worth in terms of the economic utility—which is real. Manufacturing enables innovation, because a country or company can’t innovate unless it knows how to produce. Manufacturing also enables value creation, because manufacturing jobs allow people to add value in ways that other job positions do not permit.
However, something else is inherently worthy about manufacturing—something at the level of the individual. Manufacturing is an endeavor that need not be beholden to perceptions. If I don’t like the look of where a service is provided, it will affect my experience of the service. But if I don’t like the look of where an object is made, that need not matter. My ultimate response is shaped by facts. Namely, is the part right? Is the price right? Was it delivered when we agreed it would be?
First impressions, presentation and “polish” are all, in a way, misdirection. To present ourselves well, we amplify the positive and distract from the negative. By contrast, the machining professional is often someone who simply does not have the capacity for even this much untruth. This person’s energies are aimed at the objective realities of making a part. The lack of pretence is to be admired, even if the initial contact with it is jarring. Appreciating this, I find I favor a healthy manufacturing sector for reasons that go beyond the economic utility. I also favor manufacturing because I want to live in an economy that makes plenty of room for the most genuine people among us.