Buckley Brinkman column: We're in critical times for Wisconsin manufacturing

6:58 PM, Mar. 22, 2013  |  Comments
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Wisconsin is the No. 1 manufacturing state in the No. 1 manufacturing country in the world. Manufacturing delivers 18 percent of the state's GSP.

If you include all impacts, manufacturing drives about half of the state's economy. Almost 20 perecnt of Wisconsin's private, nonfarm workforce engages in manufacturing, and over two-thirds of all R&D spending comes from the manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing drives the Wisconsin economy and the trends are heading in a positive direction. We are becoming more competitive in the world market as we apply ingenuity, technology, and smart investment to reduce costs, shrink reaction time, and discover new ways to satisfy customers. Many manufacturers are beginning to reshore products as they begin to recognize the risks and hidden costs of 6,000-mile-long supply chains.

Wisconsinites are beginning to realize how manufacturing supports communities and are becoming actively involved. It's a terrific time to be a manufacturer. For the first time in three decades, we are in a hot industry.

Still it's a critical time for Wisconsin. The world continues to change at an ever accelerating pace. Product life cycles are shrinking. Customers are tougher to acquire, satisfy, and retain. The available labor pool continually fails to meet demand - especially for skilled positions. Uncertainty has been the watchword for a decade. The challenges facing manufacturing can be daunting.

We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected and mutually dependent. Every action we take drives numerous reactions and affects entire systems. This happens on the global, community, and enterprise levels. The only way to learn about and take advantage of these changes is to aggressively engage.

On the global level, most companies should be involved in some form of exporting. All of our operations are exposed to global markets and selling in those markets is the best way to learn how to stay competitive. In addition, the U.S. is a mature, slow-growing market. Most companies need to look abroad for the growth they need to flourish.

Global markets require new skills and may also require new approaches for satisfying customers. For example, a tier-one automotive supplier started exporting and serving customers from their Wisconsin base.

This arrangement worked well for most markets, but certain key countries required manufacturing close to the assembly plants. This necessitated a strategy shift and that shift enabled the company to continue to grow - especially in these key markets.

In our communities, we are working through the workforce paradox and preparing our state for the future. As we engage in the search for more skilled workers, we quickly discover the complexity of the issue.

All of us have a stake in the solution, and those stakes change as our individual roles shift from business owner, to community leader, to educator, to employee, to union leader, to policy maker, to student. The changing perspectives, competing priorities, limited resources, and three decades of anti-manufacturing sentiment make this a more complicated issue than just an education shortcoming.

Discovery causes change and our ability to adapt and cooperate will make Wisconsin the first to effectively deal with this opportunity. All of us have multiple roles to play in solving the Workforce Paradox and it is our duty to engage.

Remember: The state that solves this paradox first will see multiple opportunities open in manufacturing and associated industries.

Finally, it's vital to improve the system within your own operation. Manufacturers identified six key elements for manufacturing success in the future: continuous improvement, customer focused innovation, sustainable product and process development, extended enterprise management, global engagement, and advanced talent management.

These are the critical success elements for next generation manufacturing within individual companies. In past eras, you could be good at one or two of these elements and have a very successful operation. Those days are gone. Today you must continuously work on all of these elements in order to survive.

Engaging an interconnected world is essential for manufacturing success. We see those connections and their impact at a global, community, and enterprise level. If we want Wisconsin to have the best manufacturing environment in the world, then we all must engage and join the cause.

- Buckley Brinkman is executive director/CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He can be reached at 608-240-1740 or brinkman@wmep.org.

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