The Reality Business

Not long ago, I had this thought: I wondered whether we might need a different term to describe the work we do. In a column such as this, I thought I might propose an alternative.

Columns From: 8/1/2006 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

Not long ago, I had this thought: I wondered whether we might need a different term to describe the work we do. In a column such as this, I thought I might propose an alternative.

“Manufacturing”—the current term, the M in next month’s IMTS—has become a bit stiff with connotations. People who hear the word often don’t think of precise, advanced technology; they think of dirty or noisy factories. Instead of automation, they equate the “manu-” with manual labor. In short, people removed from our industry often get the wrong idea.

The alternative I thought to propose was “actualization”—as in, “the actualization industry.” The term emphasizes that we are the ones who take what has been conceived and fully realize it. In a society where the range of professional work increasingly drifts into services, consultation, finance and so on, we are the ones who remain expert at bringing about a final, tangible, usable product. Let others work in the virtual realm; we do our work in the actual realm.

Again, I was thinking of proposing such a change—however semi-seriously. Now, upon reflection, I don’t think I will.

I have come to appreciate what a precious and powerful word “manufacturing” is, regardless of how long it’s been in use. If the word has become stodgy today, then that is no fault of the word, but instead the result of a popular culture that has drifted away from valuing the kind of concreteness that manufacturing represents. Yes, the word does summon false associations in the minds of investors, politicians and future employees—people to whom we might wish to appeal. This is a challenge. However, the word also makes a potent statement that shouldn’t be diluted.

We make things. The root “manu-” refers to “hand,” and even in the age of automated machinery, this still fits. The machinery does what our hands might do, if only our hands had the speed, power and precision. The important point is that manufacturing represents the art and discipline of moving from the realm of the mind alone into the realm of the mind and hands together. We know how to take ideas that are unfinished and make them complete, make them achievable and make them into work that human hands or human machines can do. From there, the end result is a product that human hands can hold and use.

Another way of saying this is that we are in the reality business. It’s as plain as that, and it’s as profound as that. Reality is demanding, and those demands can be off-putting to someone who glamorizes softer pursuits. But reality is not off-putting to us. That’s why we’re here, doing this work. Where else would you rather be?

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