I was reading a front page article in a past edition of the Baltimore Sun in which a chief economist with the National Association of Manufacturers was quoted as saying that “manufacturing has really come to a bit of a standstill at this point in time.” Others opined that the trend lines have been down for manufacturing. In the same article, the Institute for Supply Management added that the manufacturing sector has “contracted in August for the third straight month.” This was 2012.
Interestingly, I had just finished reading another article on manufacturing -- this one from Forbes on September 4, 2012. This article focused on the resurgence of manufacturing and posed an interesting question: “Public-Private Partnerships – Are they the 'Secret Sauce' to a Resurgence in American Manufacturing?” This article suggests that it may be “the more advanced energy manufacturing and additive manufacturing that might produce this resurgence and that collaborative public-private partnerships have emerged as an important component in this new era of American manufacturing.”
We could look at these opinions as a classic example of whether the glass is half empty or is it half full. If half empty, it is a dire story for American manufacturing. If half full, it is an opportunity to engage in bold and persistent experimentation leading to a resurgence in manufacturing. In either case, whether we are government, academic or business, it is our shared responsibility to make it right. I am encouraged by public-private initiatives like the E3 (Economy, Energy and the Environment) framework and the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) where several federal agencies are working together and with American communities to fine-tune manufacturing and encourage growth along with improved environmental performance. I see real promise in the technology acceleration efforts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program where they are searching outside normal channels to find solutions for an unmet technological need. Public-private partnerships have the tools and the know-how. We just need to bring them to bear through common purpose and coordinated effort.
Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege of visiting many small to medium-sized manufacturers. I have always been impressed with their dogged determination and resilience. Today, they need our support more than ever and we need to find the most effective ways of getting it to them, despite any barriers that might impede that effort.
I am reminded of the lyrics from a popular Neil Diamond tune: “Put a mountain there and I’ll tear it down. If it is too high, I’ll go around.” Or perhaps a more suitable metaphor comes from the late and great humanitarian and civil rights leader, Leon Sullivan, who was wont to say, “I see no mountains.” Let’s get it done.
Tom Murray is a Senior Science Advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Point of Contact for the Tennessee DRIVE! Program.