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MFG Is Who We Are

Toward the end of summer, I was part of an assembled mass of governors and manufacturers at a Walmart-led summit in Florida.  My boss, the Secretary of Commerce, (or, most accurately, my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, if you really want to get technical) was there, too. There we all were, attending a summit designed to revitalize, rejuvenate and re-establish the preeminence of American manufacturing.  The agenda was lofty, ambitious and inspiring; a well-orchestrated pep rally in support of American manufacturing led by the world’s largest retailer.

As Walmart President Bill Simon concluded his closing remarks, he told the audience “making things is part of who we are.” He went on to state, "You see, we all identify with what we made in our hometowns.  I'm from Hartford, Connecticut, where we made Pratt & Whitney engines and Colt firearms.”

So there I was, in the very first row (well right behind the reserved rows), putting myself in Simon’s shoes and giving myself the same speech.  My internal audience was treated to this gem, “I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we make Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and Miller Beer.”  (He has better speech writers than I do.)

Right on!  Manufacturing is part of our identities, our regional personalities, our culture.  It is who we are.  It is where we are from.  Once I thought about it, that internal audience was definitely not the first time I confessed my background in Milwaukee with Harley and Miller.  Manufacturing is a source of civic identity and pride as well as community building.

Have you ever met someone from Cedar Rapids, IA?  If you have, I am certain they’ll tell you that Crunch Berry cereal is made there.  Meeting someone from Elkart County in Indiana?  They will invariably boast that their hometown is the location of manufacturer of half the RV’s on the road.  It’s inevitable.

With the exception of (maybe) professional sports teams, we tend to introduce ourselves in regard to what gets made in our hometowns.  We connect with people by describing what we make. Sure, the sports thing can throw a wrench in the process if you root for the Green Bay Packers or the Milwaukee Brewers, but those nicknames have a manufacturing pedigree, so they work on a lot of levels.

Don’t believe me yet?  Try this word association game.  Match the city with its manufacturing-related nickname:

a.)           Chicago ____the Steel City
b.)           Pittsburgh ____the Motor City
c.)            Detroit ____the City of Broad Shoulders


How’d you do?  I bet even if you are not from any of these places you were able to score 100%.  If you didn’t get a perfect score, don’t fret, because I have an extra credit question I think will redeem your average. Why do you think Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley?

There’s a case to be made that economies change faster than nicknames can catch up.  It wasn’t too long ago that Akron, OH was known as Rubber City.  I guess to some of the older set that is probably still true.  Rubber tires are now the domain of the south with the Carolinas, North and South, leading the charge.

Other places soon to be adopting new titles include the Ohio towns of Bucyrus and Circleville and Mattoon, Illinois. During the Florida summit, GE’s Jeff Immelt announced new high-efficiency lighting plants bringing 150 manufacturing jobs to those locations. “We wanted to be a part of this,” Immelt said. “This is a first step.” I believe these kinds of announcements should be viewed in the proper light, don’t you?  I suggest 60 watts.

Now you try it.  Pretend you are Bill Simon (feels pretty cool being on that stage, huh?).  Practice your speech.

“I am from (insert city name here) and we make ( ???).”

I bet that inserting your birth city and what gets manufactured there was pretty darn easy.  Or you can say, “Right now I live in (insert city name) and we make ???”.  Manufacturing does not have an identity problem.  Quite the contrary.  Manufacturing is our identity.  It’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s where we have been and where we are going.  Let’s be proud of that!

About the author

Mark Schmit

Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), since 1988, has been committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers. As division chief for regional and state partnerships, Mark is the lead for division policy and has assisted in the development of programs supporting manufacturing and industrial extension technology-based economic development, and entrepreneurship practices with state elected officials and policy makers, including the MEP policy academies, which were designed by MEP and partners to help states build upon existing strategies, leverage available resources, and spur creative new ideas about how to address major challenges or leverage opportunities around the manufacturing sector.  Mark is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He was an MEP co-lead for the creation of MFG Day, an outreach program held on the first Friday in October to show students, parents, and the public what modern manufacturing is all about, with growing annual participation across the United States. Mark was a 2001, 2005, 2014, and 2020 recipient of NIST’s George Uriano Award.  The George Uriano Award recognizes outstanding achievements by NIST staff in building and strengthening NIST extramural programs and partnerships.

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Mark, I was there too! Great event. The Reshoring Initiative is available to help companies evaluate whether shifting to domestic production will reduce their overhead enough to balance any increase in manufacturing cost. If understanding all of the costs of offshoring is not enough, then the local MEP can help reduce the manufactuirng cost. Best!
I'm struck that the sentiment behind this is identical to that of mfg in the UK. Both want to be recognized for the historical and possible future contributions that mfg can make.
I am Jason Robert Hippe, I live in Timberlake, NC. Work in RTP and make semi conductors at CREE the home of the lighting revolution.
Fun article! Thanks for sharing.
Great article, Mark. This is the type of attitude and thinking that we need going forward. Manufacturing is the base of any strong economy, but especially the U.S. where our entire history was based upon what and how efficiently we could produce. I came across a good article earlier that talked about what industries what be moving jobs overseas, I would encourage people to check it out. It's called industries that won't be going offshores.
In my hometown of Nashua NH we are famous for shoes and caskets from a bygone era and today aerospace and defense electronics.

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