The Third Wave of Manufacturing

There is no substitute for forceful, visionary leadership.

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As I researched my article on sustainable manufacturing (see "Sustainability Leads To Next-generation Manufacturing"), this point was driven home with every practitioner example I found. Ray Anderson’s story of his metamorphosis from blinders-on, hard-driven, full-profits-ahead chief executive to leader of a profitable enterprise that takes social responsibility seriously is fascinating reading. Pick up a copy of “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist” today—and read it. Make notes, too.

It’s always amazing how your reading can bring things together. Ray Anderson talks about a new way of manufacturing. Chris Anderson’s (“Wired” magazine’s Editor in Chief and author of “The Long Tail” and “Free”) article “Atoms Are the New Bits” in the February 2010 issue of “Wired” impressed me as much as it did columnist Jim Pinto (see "New Manufacturing Paradigms"). This piece reflected his research into new ways of manufacturing. I’ve heard that we are in the “third wave of manufacturing”—meaning that we’ve gone from craft-shop manufacturing to mass production to a kind of mass craft-shop paradigm.

Twenty-six years ago, I read a prescient book, “The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity,” by Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel. Two divides, three waves, the math seems to fit. Published in 1984, the book was the result of the two professors’ research into manufacturing economics that forecast the necessity for a new way of organizing manufacturing for prosperity. I think we are now well into that phase. Some milestones I can think of along this path were Dell Computer’s custom manufacturing, where you could almost see your personal computer being built right to your specifications. Does anyone remember when Saturn was going to be the new way of building cars? Unfortunately, GM couldn’t stand building cars a new way. The idea was great, though. The ads touted people ordering their custom vehicles and tracking them through production.

Whenever I travel, I look for manufacturing sites. For several years now, I seldom see a large one. One of my customers in the ’90s built engines for cars, trucks and boats. It had four engine lines under one roof. There were at least a half-dozen production superintendants. I think at one point in the ’80s there were more than 3,000 employees in the plant. When I last visited two years ago, there was one full line and parts of another. I don’t know what employment is now, but it couldn’t have been as many as 500. I think it was just too big to manage before. And, factories just aren’t as concentrated anymore.

Small, but nimble

Factories are becoming smaller, more smartly automated and more nimble. The exceptions right now include refineries and petrochemical plants springing up in China. Some of them are huge. But I bet that eventually changes, too. Even there, the pressures of sustainable manufacturing are changing the way plants and factories are designed and operated. We are really trying to make manufacturing lean, strong and efficient.

I view sustainable manufacturing as an extension of Lean. That view of manufacturing is, at its core, elimination of waste. Many of the ideas behind Lean were things I was taught and practiced from my first job in manufacturing. That they were codified and extended by Toyota and immortalized as the Toyota Production System is today ironic. Which gets us back to leadership. Evidently, the third generation of the Toyoda family now running the company got caught up in the race to be biggest against GM, instead of focusing first on being best. It is the job of leaders to keep the proper vision in focus.

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