Manufacturing Panelists Agree: The Industry Is Booming

At the Ohio Manufacturing Summit, four panelists fielded a variety of questions. Each found good reason for manufacturing optimism.


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The inaugural Ohio Manufacturing Summit (OMS), sponsored and organized by Ohio Business Magazine, met recently in West Chester, Ohio, to discuss manufacturing in the Midwest. The OMS gathered about 200 Cincinnati-area manufacturing professionals to hear a panel of four machine shop and manufacturing experts discuss issues relevant to the industry. The panelists included Dan Janka, president of Mazak Corp.; Greg Knox, president of Knox Machinery; Josh Mook, innovation leader at GE Additive; and Peter Zelinski, editor-in-chief of Modern Machine Shop. They fielded moderator and audience questions about the current boom in the manufacturing industry, educational needs, technological innovation, environmental issues and cybersecurity.

The panel’s consensus was that opportunities abound for the manufacturing industry. Mr. Janka said, “I can honestly say there’s no better time to be in manufacturing than right now. When we look at the global economies and how they’ve synchronized in terms of recovery, manufacturing makes up about $2.5 trillion of our economy and there’s 12.7 million people employed, and that number’s been going up since the end of the recession.”

Mr. Knox continued by pointing out that Cincinnati manufacturers find themselves in a very strategic location. “We’re within 600 miles of two thirds of all the manufacturing that happens in the United States, so the manufacturers here have everything they need right at their fingertips. From a resource perspective, we have unlimited water and natural gas as well as affordable energy.”

This boom does not come without its trials, though. One problem that has come up is the median age of workers on the shop floor. Mr. Janka said, “We, as an industry, have created about a 30-year vacuum in manufacturing in terms of developing the next generation to come along and start the backflow for retiring baby boomers, and it’s created some tremendous challenges for workforce development. About seven or eight years ago, we looked at our demographics and realized the average years of service was up in the mid-50s, and we thought, we’ve got to address this now.”

To do so, Mazak partnered with a community college and several other manufacturers in the area to develop a two-year curriculum and equip the college’s laboratories. This enabled the college to begin student training in electronics, maintenance, welding and CNC machining. So far, Mazak has recruited about 100 apprentices that have come through this program.

Still, Mr. Janka said, “I can’t tell you how difficult it’s been to get young kids interested. Their parents don’t talk about or promote manufacturing. Their school counselors don’t talk about or promote manufacturing. It’s no longer the old smoke-stack industry it was 40 or 50 years ago. It’s all computerized, oftentimes robotized, and it’s actually a very exciting career.” In fact, Mr. Janka’s final call of the panel was for people in the manufacturing industry to take the time to educate grade-school and high-school-age children about the benefits of a manufacturing career.

Another topic that the panel addressed was the practices of a successful job shop. Mr. Zelinski responded, “One thing that successful manufacturers have in common is a focus on process. There are a hundred different ways that your process can be not quite what it should be, and the employees are always going to muscle through that. What successful manufacturers have in common is a willingness to look at that state of affairs very honestly and admit to themselves, this process that seems to be succeeding is not in a hundred different ways, so let’s set about fixing it one step at a time. Because in the absence of a process focus, you end up focusing on employees in a negative way. If you can get to a culture that’s relatively free of blame, then that sets free a lot of imagination and a lot of innovation and a lot of optimism.”

Mr. Knox pointed out along these same lines that smaller manufacturers have some advantages that larger ones don’t have. “Large corporations have a tendency to become cumbersome. All of their metrics surround making their shareholders happy. And the customer, who is he? He’s so far downstream they don’t even remember who he is after a while. I call it Big Company Disease.” In contrast, Mr. Knox said that having a small company enables him to do “extensive vetting” of potential employees and personally shape company culture, an option not available to larger companies.

On the issue of technological innovation, Mr. Mook said, “Additive is changing the way we think about where value comes from. What you’re seeing globally is that it is being recognized. All the top industries are taking additive extremely seriously, and they’re thinking about how they change the design of their products, how they change the outlay of their supply base.” Such changes, Mr. Mook says, occur because of the things additive manufacturing makes possible. “Think about machining these very complex, intricate parts with very long tool reaches or sometimes really difficult workholding. It’s going to drive innovation in that space from the machinery standpoint and from the execution standpoint.”

A short silence took over the OMS when the moderator voiced an audience member’s question on how manufacturers deal with environmental regulations. The pause seemed to indicate a recognition that environmental issues need to be addressed. “As a manufacturer,” Mr. Janka responded, “we take the regulations very seriously. Our facility sits on a beautiful stream that’s tested on a regular basis. We want to be stewards to the environment and our community, so the water conversation is very relevant. We’ve never had any violations, and testing is a regular occurrence. We work with third-party consultants and experts with regard to overall waste management and water management. Also, if you look at the machines that are being developed today, energy’s a big deal. We want these machines to do more with less energy, and that’s a competitive advantage.”

The last issue the panelists addressed at the OMS was cybersecurity. Again Mr. Janka responded. “This is a very, very serious topic. When you think about a typical company, oftentimes the manufacturing floor is on the other side of the firewall from the enterprise resource planning (ERP) and financial systems, which are very well protected. The factory floor is comprised of CNC, computer-controlled assets, and it would be very easy to implement a bug or virus into that chain, to basically start to create scrap. The question is, how do you isolate assets on the manufacturing floor the same way you isolate financial systems?” In a collaborative effort, Mr. Janka said, Mazak created the SmartBox, a device that isolates one or several CNC machines. The SmartBox enables the extraction of information from these machines in a secure environment. “This technology,” Mr. Janka continued, “is being implemented by the major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that are working with the defense industry.”

Before adjourning, the moderator asked each panelist to sum up his thoughts about the manufacturing industry in 1 minute. Mr. Zelinski’s response represents the core takeaway of the OMS: “The United States makes stuff, and we don’t give ourselves credit for that. The future for manufacturing in the United States, and this region in particular, is so bright. If you’re young and you’re investing the hopes of your career in manufacturing, I am fully confident you’re making an excellent choice.”