Breaking down silos that restrain manufacturing—and regional cooperation

By Bart Taylor | Dec 02, 2014

Unless things change in the next couple weeks, manufacturing will end the year where it started -- with considerable momentum and its star rising. Certainly the national business press is taking note this week of a surging sector: Factories Humming in U.S. Even Amid Global Slowing, Bloomberg; U.S. factory growth slips in Nov. but still healthy,; and American Manufacturing Is Alive and Well, The Wall Street Journal.

Why then hasn't manufacturing yet captured the imagination of the region, as employment growth outpaces the economy at large, with benefits like higher wages that attend to the broad-based resurgence underway?

Part of it involves the depth of the well from which American manufacturing is emerging. WSJ's Jason Lahart lamented the tepid cheerleading this past with Monday with an article headlined, "U.S.'s Forgotten Economic Engine" while noting that "only 10% of private-sector workers (are) employed by manufacturers (today), versus 25% in 1980…" On its way back, sure, but manufacturing still has a ways to go.

Institutions may have also forgotten what a manufacturing economy looks like. In the Colorado Business Review, CU's Leeds School of Business highlighted the growth of Mesa County's 'Outdoor Industry Manufacturing.' All well and good, though the header seems a narrow, somewhat dated description of the growing lifestyle manufacturing sector that's a catalyst of economic growth in western Colorado. It's comprised of apparel, cycling and outdoor gear, craft beer, distilling and winemaking. Industry also sees opportunity in the regional growth of contract manufacturing, like small tech-shops, easy to launch with 3D printing and other additive processes that should be a foundation for tech-driven manufacturing growth.

Economic developers tend also to envision manufacturing narrowly -- as part of clusters or 'silos.' Colorado's state development office considers manufacturing one of seven 'Advanced Industries', though it's not an industry as much as it's a process integral to many industry sectors. And the focus on high-tech manufacturing to the exclusion of low-tech manufacturers leaves the latter group without a home in the OEDIT scheme.

But the focus on industry clusters, on building expertise within silos, is prevalent in business as well, to the detriment of innovation, notes Marc Dunkelman of the Harvard Business Review. In "How Quality Time is Killing American Innovation," Dunkleman points to a societal lack of interaction, of "cross-fertilization" between people and their institutions today.

It's an important lesson for manufacturers: Dunkelman references Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory and the lessons learned from Bell Labs, which "designed its research facilities to ensure that scientists working on separate projects would run into each other, sharing their work and discussing their challenges. The that researchers with connections outside their own departments 'are at risk at having good ideas'".

Breaking down barriers between industry sectors that manufacture will do the same thing. The innovative go-to-market strategies and co-making facilities that have propelled regional organic and natural food producers to national prominence can certainly be a model for manufacturers elsewhere. Industrial firms building custom workforce development methodologies are a model to be emulated in other manufacturing sectors -- most of whom suffer skill and talent gaps.

But the most significant embrace of a parochial, siloed view may be the way regional states view their relationship with each other. Utah and Colorado measure economic growth vis-a-vis each other, as if Utah's gain is Colorado's loss, and vice versa. Here's a novel approach: embrace cross-state collaboration to develop cross-industry collaboration to drive the growth of the regional manufacturing economy. The opportunities to do so are too many to list.

Do so and the growth of the broad, big-shouldered manufacturing economy we're witnessing today will be less an afterthought, and perhaps news in the Wall Street Journal.