Elon Musk’s call to arms a jolt that manufacturing needs

By Bart Taylor | May 10, 2016

Elon Musk's very public recruiting pitch this week for manufacturing talent was a call to arms, not only for Tesla but for U.S. manufacturing. Let's hope Musk not only finds the talent to replace his two recent high-profile departures, but that good things come from the publicity. As more innovators of Musk's ilk run headlong into manufacturing's U.S. talent gap, we'll get closer to disassembling barriers that impede growth.

Reuters touched on one in the Musk article last week:

Putting aside the issue of capital requirements, auto experts point to a shortage of manufacturing engineers, whose ranks were thinning out even before the U.S. auto crisis hit in 2008.

As one source, Garth Motschenbacher, director of employer relations at Michigan State University's College of Engineering, aptly described, "It's a constant issue we have in this country. . . . For the longest time manufacturing was seen as the dirty end of engineering."

Bingo. Manufacturers refer to the negative perception as the 'four D's' -- dirty, dumb, dangerous, and dying -- descriptors that are largely inaccurate today but pervasive.

Yet Tesla may be the perfect company to change manufacturing's public image. Auto companies are connected to American manufacturing like no other. As innovative and technology-inspired Tesla or Faraday Future are, their manufacturing DNA matters.

This can’t be said for tech giants like Apple or sporting goods stars Nike, both manufacturers, both who also carefully cultivate an image distinctly separate from the realities of where they make. Apple and Nike may be today's brand equilvalent of the Ford Motor Company circa 1930, but they complicate Tesla’s challenge by exporting manufacturing jobs while keeping other integral elements here -- design, engineering, brand development, and the like.

But today a Tesla Model 3 is every bit as appealing to modern consumers as an iPhone or Air Jordans. We revel in the design.

Fabricating or assembly? We don’t appreciate the manufacturing. Nor do many of America’s prominent brands. Manufacturing is something you do overseas, with U.S. designs.

But there's more. The methodology has spilled over to the way promising ideas are funded. It's a reality companies like Boulder Engineering Studio (BES) see every day. "So often [products] are prototyped without any considerations toward manufacturability and cost," says Callie Wentling, director of business development for BES. "There's a lot to be said for creating a proof of concept to demonstrate technical feasibility and generate interest among potential backers and users, but too often companies focus on the 'pretty' up front and don't consider what can be a long road from functional to manufacturable."

BES is trying to change the model. "We do challenge them to think through and characterize as much of their product as possible so we can begin laying a foundation for manufacturability as early as our first design push," Wentling says. "If [an idea] is ultimately going to be scrapped, why allow your development team, marketers, or potential and test users fall in love with it in early revisions? Far better to provision for those elements up front, so you can plan your development strategy around a slick integration of otherwise problematic features."

Manufacturability. Has Elon Musk lost site of the manufacturability challenge of producing 500,000 Model 3’s by 2020? We’ll find out if he fills the positions but still can’t deliver half a million cars.

If he does, Tesla’s engineers will have demonstrated the beautiful end of manufacturing.

I’m rooting for him to make the right hires.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

A related note: Design-to-Manufacturing is the theme of the 3rd annual 2016 Apparel Manufacturing + Lifestyle Sourcing Summit. Save the date -- Sept. 28 in Denver -- and plan on attending as we pick up the challenge in apparel and lifestyle manufacturing.