Many people, including some Plant Services readers, continue to decry the rising strength of manufacturing, especially in Asia, most notably in China. It’s especially painful to see emerging economies continue to grow and invest in U.S. securities while the United States is experiencing high levels of unemployment, a huge national treasury deficit and a weakening dollar.
Some go so far as to see the current situation as evidence that the United States has lost it — not its status as the world’s leader (yet), but the resourcefulness, ingenuity and work ethic that put us there. They think we’ve gotten lazy and stupid, lost our priorities, our creativity, our can-do attitude.
Well, as someone whose job is to understand as well as possible how to optimize productivity — to make a manufacturing facility perform quickly, consistently, reliably and efficiently — I have to paraphrase Mark Twain and suggest that any report of the death of the American spirit is highly exaggerated.
Every day, for every piece of bad news about the economy, competitiveness and the future of manufacturing, I see at least 10 items describing higher productivity, better quality, improved energy efficiency or stunning innovation. There’s no doubt in my mind that U.S. manufacturing is improving at a rapid pace, as it has for every one of the 30-odd years I’ve been involved with it.
In this slim issue alone, you can find evidence of award-winning energy projects, improved automation and controls, solved problems with motor reliability and powerful innovation in information technology, knowledge management and personnel productivity.
It’s often been noted that innovation takes place at the intersections of previously apparently unrelated developments, like calculators and telephones. I assert that it also favors the intersections between previously independent communities, such as IT and engineering, or production and maintenance. But like a mixture of air and vaporized gasoline, just bringing technologies or groups together is not enough — you need a spark to get them fully engaged and working with each other.
In this issue’s cover story, that spark is mobile computing. At Huntsman Chemical, technicians use hand-held devices to record accurate process data and communicate work order information. The expected results of more accurate entries, higher workforce productivity and real-time accountability for technicians were met. But the technicians were pleasantly surprised to find that real-time, accurate condition information and safety notifications hold management accountable for solving problems and providing resources. Now the highly motivated maintenance staff has an effective way of bringing the plant up to their vision of safety, reliability and efficiency.
Resourcefulness isn’t putting lead paint on toys, melamine in food or corrosives in drywall. It isn’t lots of people doing what they’re told, or else. It’s every individual thinking about the greater good, their job and how they fit together, then doing what makes sense with the help of their coworkers.
If you have an example of how innovation and cooperation have improved your plant’s performance, please consider sharing it with me and your fellow plant professionals by entering our Best Practices Awards. The deadline for our Management category is Jan. 15.
If not, well, get cracking.