The Factory Fallacy

What's in a word?

Columns From: 1/4/2010 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

I recently saw a newspaper article that included an element I found a little unsettling. The headline was promising enough: "White House Wants to Boost Manufacturing Jobs." But the article itself included a subtle shift in wording. The first sentence described a White House official saying that the administration "is likely to unveil efforts to boost factory jobs in the coming months." Which newspaper this appeared in is not important, because after I noticed the phenomenon once, I began to see further examples almost everywhere. You’ll see it yourself once I point it out to you. The detail that caught me is this: Both the government and the media routinely use "manufacturing" and "factory" interchangeably—as if factories are the only significant places in which manufacturing occurs.

Do you work in a factory?

Some reading this would answer "yes." This magazine’s circulation includes many factories.

However, my guess—having visited many, many of the facilities where our readers work—is that most of you would have a hard time referring to your own company, shop or workplace as a "factory."

The word connotes a large building or complex where an established product is produced through an intricate series of repetitive steps. A job shop, for example, is not really a factory. Neither is a tool and die shop, nor is a prototyping firm, nor are a great many contract suppliers. Yet all of these places engage in manufacturing.

You might think I’m biased because of this magazine’s focus on machining. The work of assembly would necessarily involve more "factories," wouldn’t it? Perhaps. But I also see significant amounts of assembly being done in convenient, value-added stages at facilities like the ones mentioned previously. Often there is very little final assembly to do by the time the subassemblies all reach the OEM. The "factory" in these cases is just an idea, with the work of assembly spread thin across the supply chain.

I am not just arguing semantics. "Factory" is something far more specific than "manufacturing." The essence of many manufacturing facilities is not volume or recurring production. Instead, the essence of many manufacturing facilities is a team of mechanically-minded people who come together to overcome the challenges related to an ever-shifting variety of products or parts. Implementing the solutions to those challenges then involves capital equipment along with both high-skill and lower-skill work—but not necessarily factory work per se.

I’d love to see more factories in this country. I’d love to see more factories in my own specific part of the country. But even more than that, I want to see more manufacturing—as in, a nation that is proudly committed to producing tangible, valuable goods. Those who claim to support this idea do it limited service if they don’t care to recognize what manufacturing entails. The "factory" is one way we organize people and capital to produce real and useful things—but this is not the only way we manufacture, and not the only way that we create manufacturing jobs.

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