More Than Meets the Eye

As U.S. manufacturing moves toward high-value-added processes and advanced technology, it is becomingly increasingly secretive. I wish we all could see more of what is going on.


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Preparing articles for this month’s issue on machining high temp materials reminded me that, although a lot of advanced, innovative manufacturing is going on in this country, a significant portion of it is hidden. I was hoping to cite examples from users, but couldn’t find shops or plants willing to talk about some of their most important and interesting metalworking processes. Although it’s encouraging to find evidence that a high level of manufacturing is thriving in the United States, the difficulty in getting more details to share in credible accounts is frustrating.

It is not difficult, however, to understand the reticence. The most common reason is that shops are bound by non-disclosure agreements signed with their customers. Many of these customers are concerned about protecting their intellectual property, which is a prudent and necessary course in a world where patents and copyrights are not universally respected. Of course, work for defense contractors must be governed by the interests of national security, so it is often sequestered.
Another reason for shops to withhold technical information is to protect “trade secrets” that provide a competitive advantage. Shops that develop new uses for technology or invent their own enhancements should see these efforts rewarded in the marketplace. Still other shops are wary of revealing cost- or labor-saving innovations because it might put pressure on a strong profit margin if customers demand a price cut.
So the reasons for the secrecy are rational and valid, but the consequences are unfortunate. To an extent, it hinders the adoption of new technology and may slow the progress of parts manufacturing as a whole. Shops have more trouble promoting their capabilities because they can’t show or talk about the most exciting things they can do. Likewise, suppliers lose an effective sales tool that might help them reach new markets.
The public, the news media, our politicians and policy makers are also left with an incomplete view of metalworking and manufacturing. Who knows how many glamorous or dramatic examples of manufacturing triumphs are locked in obscurity? A greater awareness of these successes would boost society’s regard for the benefits of these capabilities. The news would certainly counter the false impression that manufacturing is backward, dull, low -tech or in terminal decline. It might also help recruit new talent and bolster training initiatives.
I’m keeping a balanced perspective, though. Sure, we miss out on some stories about how fantastic parts are being made in amazing ways. Knowing that this kind of manufacturing is underway may be a sufficient consolation. However, the writers at this magazine have plenty of leads for articles about users who are eager to share their best insights and know-how. Next month’s article line-up presents a few of these to prove the point.