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Can American compete worldwide?

Can American compete worldwide?

Is America losing

its technological edge?

* Yes, say 74% of the respondents. * Of those, 8 out of 10 say it's still deteriorating. * The US excels only in basic research; it lags in applied research, product development, and manufacturing technology. * 60% of the respondents admit their company is only "somewhat" technologically up-to-date; 20% say "not at all." * Even so, more than half feel their company hasn't lost its technological edge.

The United States isn't doing enough to rehone its technological edge. What's worse is that there is some evidence that too many of those responsible for recapturing industrial supremacy are oblivious to the consequences of their apathy.

Industry in the United States continues to be buffeted on all sides by foreign competition. Few can argue that American manufacturers have lost, at least, some of their technological edge. That was confirmed by a T&P reader survey, included in the June issue, in which more than seven out of ten of the respondents (73.7%) agreed that "American industry has, in fact, lost its technological edge." Of that number even a greater percentage, 81.6, contend that the situation is still deteriorating.

Causes for the blunting of American industry, from T&P's reader respondents, ranged from the deterioration of basic family values, public apathy, and a sagging work ethic to government meddling, too many MBAs, a lack of training, and the failing educational system, to name just a few.

What will to work?

An Amarillo, TX, respondent writes that "We could, if we would all try, outperform any nation on earth . . . Our problem stems from loss of character of our people." A supervisor at a plating company in Indiana picked up the same theme: "I don't think Americans care about the country; they only care about their wallets." Yet another echoes: "US citizens have lost their pride and respect of themselves and their workplace."

"If you look back in history, Americans were hard working, sharing, caring people. This is no longer true," claims a New Hampshire respondent. "We have lost the will to work. Evidently we're not hungry any more. Our over-confident attitude and past glories have put us where we are now."

"America's melting pot is not contributing as well as it did in the 40s and 50s," writes a general manager from Long Island.

The survey, obviously, struck an emotional cord with the almost 1000 manufacturing engineers and other respondents who are responsible for keeping America's factories humming. In fact, 34% of them admitted that the situation made them "angry" while another 59% claimed to be "frustrated." Not a single respondent claimed to be "satisfied" over the state of affairs US industry finds itself in.

They fault management

A big portion of blame was assigned to short-sighted management focus. A senior manufacturing engineer feels "We have lost the will to be risk takers by allowing the company to be run by the accountant."

D E Molenaar, a manufacturing engineer with Howmedica Inc, Rutherford, NY, charged that too many people in top management positions don't really understand, or have a feel for, what manufacturing is all about. He started his career at the age of 19 in a machine shop and earned his degree by attending night school.

"I see these four-year degreed people that don't know what manufacturing is, but they are the ones the move up into senior management," he said. "Too many of them are looking for quick fixes - miracle cures. MRP, Quality Circles, and other management programs are all good but they are not a quick fix."

He contends the problems are not all that complicated but they are numerous. "We need to address them one at a time, not by the quick-fix method," Mr Molenaar says. Even so, he is hopeful. He feels people are finally starting to understand they have to go back to the basics.

Other respondents are less kind in their assessment of management. Writes one: "Management incompetence is the biggest stumbling block to regaining our technological edge."

William R. Smith, consulting engineer with Arthur D Little, management consultants, feels that "the majority of the problems are management-oriented, not technology-oriented." He feels that too often the individuals running large, engineering-oriented companies do not have the work history or skill knowledge to make the best decisions; that too many in top management come from sales backgrounds rather than technological careers.

The survey confirms such comments. Sixty-five percent of the respondents feel that the "effectiveness" of their company's top management falls short when compared to that of their Pacific Rim competitors. More than half of the respondents (53%) also felt their middle management stacked up poorly to the foreign competition.

One of those is Bob Reed, manufacturing engineer with the James-town Engine Plant of Cummins Engine Co, Lakewood, NY. "It's not a technological edge that we've lost; it's a managerial edge," he contends. "Technology is abused in the US. Management, in its traditionally short-term orientation, jumps to technology to solve its woes and more often than not fails." Technology needs a basic understanding which is often lacking in management. If you use technology to automate a wasteful process you still end up with a wasteful process, Mr Reed explains. He suggests a pre-automation study whereby you first remove the waste from the manual process before you automate it.

Bottom-line focus

Rick Hippe agrees. The director of engineering for Nanik Div of Wausau (WI) Metals contends "We focus primarily on the bottom line. We never think long-term." One of the manifestations of that mentality, as one respondent points out, is "management selling our technology to Japan for pennies."

That same subject is a "pet peeve" of A J Spataro, vice president-engineering, Nagel Chase Inc, Gurnee, IL. "We invent new products and the Japanese develop them and bring them to market," he says.

Asked to characterize America's strengths and weaknesses in R&D, only in basic research did the majority (60%) of the survey respondents check "strong." Only 30% felt that the US was "strong" in applied research, as opposed to 70% marking "weak." Even fewer respondents, 26%, felt the US was "strong" in product development.

Asked to assess the US in terms of "manufacturing technology," only a third of the respondents characterized it as "strong" while two-thirds felt it was "weak."

That shortfall in manufacturing technology may be as a result of a lack of investment which also stems from the short-term focus US management is forced to take. In both the age and condition of the equipment they have to work with, two-thirds of the survey respondents felt US manufacturing facilities are at a disadvantage when compared to their Pacific Rim competitors.

Consequently, 60% of the respondents felt that their company was only "somewhat" technologically up-to-date; 20% admitted they were "not at all" up-to-date technologically. Even so, only slightly more than half of the respondents (53.4%) felt that their own company had lost its technological edge.

Lack investment

Jack Conley Jr. manager, Midwest Accurate Grinding, Riverdale, IL, claims "Uncle Sam and his taxes keep smaller firms from getting the new equipment they need to compete." In business since 1969, the company invested in CNC five years ago. He upgraded his equipment to improve quality but the government is "making it tough for us to stay in business," he says.

"Our legislators don't appreciate business' role," agrees I H Stutz, president, Bowes Manufacturing Inc, Solon, OH. "They have fostered the idea that business can pay for all the social programs they want to sponsor, but business doesn't pay taxes, the public pays them," he claims, pointing out that in today's climate it just isn't feasible to invest in new equipment.

An investment tax credit would be very helpful, says I R Linder, president of Prema Int'l, distributor of high-tech grinding equipment. "As a machine tool distributor we see the obstacles of investing in the latest technology on a daily basis," he says.

What makes it even worse, Mr Lindner adds, is that we see the investment in high-tech equipment in Europe and in Japan, but not in the United States because of the lack of available investment funds.

Ed Urban, recently retired manager of manufacturing engineering at Cummins Allison Corp, contends "We need the government to take a more active role in rebuilding our manufacturing capability." A Chicago survey respondent puts it even more bluntly: "US tax policy punishes manufacturers."

Not enough training

Many of the respondents pointed to yet another cause of America's technological edge being dulled: a lack of training and education. Two-thirds feel that the training provided in their shops is inferior to what might be available to the work-force of a Pacific Rim competitor.

Gary R Gaither, senior project engineer, Delco Electronics, Kokomo, IN, feels too many companies place emphasis on a college degree and let slide the training and practical experience that the skilled trades and manufacturing engineers require to do a good job. Without that practical experience the engineer doesn't have a feel for what can be done in the real world, he adds.

He's finding that, to overcome that lack of experience, tooling and manufacturing engineers are working closely with product designers to insure parts are being created that can be economically produced to the proper tolerances.

The problem gets even more basic on the factory floor, says Carmen Perucci, industrial engineer with Automotive Controls Corp, Branford, CN. "The lack of basic essential skills such as the 3-Rs and technical background needs to be addressed," he writes.

Gary Kinkela, co-founder of the Micro-Teaching Factory in Monroeville, PA, claims America is losing its competitive edge partly because companies can't effectively use the new technology they have purchased. "We are using only 30% to 40% of the automation power we have in the field today, and that is a crime," he says. His school teaches basic machining skills as well as math skills needed to run the more complex equipment being found on the factory floor.

Can your company compete with the Pacific Rim in:
 Yes No
Productivity of the workforce 37.4% 62.6%
Worker motivation and hustle 28.8% 71.2%
Training your workforce 36.8% 63.2%
Effectiveness of top management 34.9% 65.1%
Effectiveness of middle management 46.6% 53.4%
Condition of the equipment 35.8% 64.2%
Controlling manufacturing costs 40.3% 59.7%
Age of the equipment 34.6% 65.4%
Producing quality parts 61.4% 38.6%
Product development 52.1% 47.9%
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:reader survey
Author:Modic, Stanley J.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:At USCTI roundtable: US toolmakers race to keep pace with technology.
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