Which of these two viewpoints of U.S. manufacturing do you tend to hold?
Job flight to low-wage offshore economies: Domestic wage stagnation? Job insecurity? Or alternately, automation and robotics: Lean systems? Stable employment?
If you see both, you are right.
As most of us recognized several decades ago, old-line manufacturers, unable to shed mid-20th century industrial models, are dinosaurs of a bygone era. They and the $20-per-hour wages they offered unskilled workers are kaput. As if I needed reminding of that (and I didn’t), my local newspaper recently reported the impending shutdown of a massive bearing manufacturing facility near my home. With 14 acres under a single roof, for decades this sprawling factory had been the primary employer in the region and buoyed its economy — but not since the 1980s. The news of the plant’s shutdown saddened but did not surprise me.
More than 40 years ago, I was one of more than 3,000 United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) employees at the factory. I worked the second shift in the shipping department. While I was grateful for the fat weekly paychecks and the generous benefits, I found the work repetitive and boring. After a year punching the clock, I left the factory to pursue other opportunities.
My factory experience (oily, dirty, noisy, wasteful) so many years ago is a far cry from what I’ve witnessed visiting perhaps a dozen green industry product manufacturers over the past 15 years. To name a few, I was mightily impressed with the lean manufacturing system embraced by the employees at the Ariens Company in Brillion, Wisconsin. The uniformed employees at the Honda plant in Swepsonville, North Carolina, work with the precision of a military honor guard. In 2014, Honda invested another $8.5 million into the facility, which manufactures small engines, lawn mowers, tillers, snow blowers and water pumps for worldwide distribution.
A recent article in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper shared yet another industry manufacturing success story. In an interview with the newspaper, Nikolas Stihl, chairman of STIHL Inc., related that the company’s U.S. manufacturing headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has never had a layoff. How remarkable is that – at least in relation to the fiery rhetoric that the winning presidential candidate pounded upon? Nineteen hundred employees work alongside robots that have automated much of STIHL’s U.S. manufacturing process.
“It’s important to see automation not as a danger,” added STIHL President Bjoern Fischer during the interview, “but the only possibility to actually keep the jobs against the low-wage countries of this world.”
Fischer added: “You have to ride change all the time. There has never been a time without a challenge of some sort.”
I’ve been fortunate to see firsthand the commitment the German-based company and many other well-known industry suppliers continue to make to the green industry and to the American economy.
Nine years ago, STIHL Inc. dedicated its $25-million 60,000-square-foot guide bar production plant in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hans Peter Stihl, head of STIHL from 1973-2002 and son of founder Andreas Stihl, pushed the ceremonial “start button” to bring the plant to life. The product rolling out of the facility represented the first time chain bars manufactured in the United States by the STIHL.
I remember the day clearly. I was part of a small group of journalists that met with Hans Peter Stihl who, after a half-hour press conference where he fielded our questions, presented each of us with a signed guide bar. I still have mine. Then we toured the plant, much of the still-gleaming production machinery designed and patented by STIHL engineers, we learned.
The opening of the chain bar plant increased STIHL’s footprint in Virginia Beach to more than one million square feet of manufacturing and administration space. Contrast that with STIHL’s first years in Virginia Beach in the early 1970s when it had 45 employees working in 20,000-square-feet facility in the Airport Industrial Park.
By automating, training, innovating and increasing the value of our services to the public, we grow. As the green industry grows, so too do its suppliers.