With legislative gridlock in the forecast, can U.S. manufacturing sustain its technology agenda?

By Bart Taylor | Oct 31, 2022

President Biden's enthusiasm for U.S. manufacturing in the final days of the election belied a simple truth for Democrats: As important the message, it constitutes much of what passes for the party's economic agenda. Biden's Dems rode a mix of issues to a surprising outcome last night; one can imagine a far different result if a vision for American prosperity had been more of a focus early on.

With a Congressional red lean still likely, alongside a blue president, U.S. companies are facing legislative gridlock for the next two years, a prospect that appeals to some but certainly not to those invested in seeing through pro-manufacturing federal initiatives that Biden's Department of Commerce has teed up, in part through its NIST-sponsored Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or MEP, national network.

Biden's team, including MEP national director Pravina Raghavan, have been at work aligning the 51 state- and territory-level MEP centers around uniform messaging and programming aimed to tackle manufacturing's twin tormentors -- workforce and supply-chain issues. At the MEP national network conference in Chicago in late September, Raghavan spelled out to me the common themes -- in her words, the "connective tissue" -- that will flow from the federal level through state MEP centers to local and regional manufacturers.

Raghavan highlighted a trio of obstacles that are front and center for most domestic manufacturers. "Supply chain -- reshoring and filling supply-chain gaps -- and MEP is named in Biden's plan," she said. "Workforce -- I've yet to find a manufacturer that doesn't have a workforce problem. And technology and innovation. Thousands of companies are still unsure it's right for them. How do we help them understand how to take advantage of a cobot or AI on their line? That's the mission of every MEP center with regard to technology -- helping manufacturers do it but being there every step of the way, to make sure they're not left on their own. Then, we take those best practices and share them across the national network."

To Raghavan and Biden's credit, this administration has successfully distilled manufacturing's challenges to the seminal issues of the day: the acute need to uptool American manufacturers and upskill its labor force.

What's critical, however, is that manufacturing's technology agenda advances to the next level, where outcomes from tech and automation manifest not only in production outcomes and improved manufacturing processes, but in workforce outcomes, where STEM grads perceive a tech-fueled 21st century manufacturing sector as equivalent to a career in tech.

We're a ways off. Our point of reference today is that automation will help overcome workforce challenges by filling in for hard-to-find employees, or else enable current workers to focus on more value-add roles as cobots, robots, and other tech assets tackle menial jobs. It's a meaningful development in the sense that technology isn't viewed as a threat to manufacturing employment anymore, but a stopgap, a means to counter the sector's well-documented employment woes.

The future is much more exciting, where a new generation of tech-informed manufacturing equipment and infrastructure become a catalyst for growth -- and a magnet for engineering graduates and entrepreneurs (like Summit Peak Manufacturing in today's UT Mfg. Report) that transforms the public perception of a manufacturing career. One outcome would be a wave of new manufacturing companies inspired by, yes, tech nerds!

Gridlock or not, the good news is that the planning and innovation sure to accelerate momentum in America's reawakened sector doesn't originate in Washington D.C. -- it's in the DNA of companies and business leadership. That said, we'll assume the best and hope that U.S. manufacturing continues to be a bipartisan cause celebre, with an outcome so clear and unvarnished that dysfunction in D.C. can't derail its mission to uptool and upskill.

We'll keep the pressure on.

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