Why "Advanced Manufacturing" Is A Bogus Term We Still Have To Use

 

In Portland, there's a network of publicly-owned parking garages around downtown that have been branded with the same name and logos: Smart Park. Unfortunately, the logo of a parking attendant wearing a baseball cap and pointing his index finger to his temple makes him look kind of... dumb. In this case, calling something "smart" and trying to draw a picture of it makes it look exactly the opposite.

There are some of the same kinds of problems with the term "advanced manufacturing", the flavor of the month in economic development circles, which, is just as broad in its definition and use as Richard Florida's term "creative class" was ten years ago. Unfortunately, when it comes to making change, you want terms that everyone can understand connect with, but in this case "advanced manufacturing" is a term that may mean something to public policy types but almost nothing to industry.

 

The problem with "advanced manufacturing" is that it implies that there is also a kind of "backwards manufacturing" out there as well, the dull, dirty, repetitious, polluting industry that no one with any level of education ever wanted to work in. While that term may apply to a number of operations owned by the Koch Brothers, most manufacturing companies that are operating today have survived by ladling in just the right level of technology, not too much and not too little. Companies like GM that over-invest in technology sometimes saw those efforts go awry. Ironically, the most technologically
"backwards" are probably urban artisans making craft beer, bread and bicycles, but nobody seems to be complaining about them!

If the name doesn't mean a lot then, what is the intent of the term "advanced manufacturing"? Maybe the important concept is that of the use of advanced materials and machining methods, such as 3D printing, specialty alloys, and digitally-controlled milling machines. Another concept is that of high value-added products derived from customization and the use of special skills. A third concept is that of the complexity of production, of bringing together various complicated steps in one assembly. With these meanings, FoxConn is not an advanced manufacturer, since it is earning thin margins as a contract manufacturer, with the real profits going back to Cupertino. On the other hand, Boeing is, because of the integration of design and production, especially for specialized military orders.

Unfortunately, unless we're willing to use long-winded terms like "tech-based manufacturing" we're probably stuck with "advanced manufacturing" until policy types and real estate brokers get more immersed in the production world of manufacturing and understand how these companies operate day to day. For most communities, unfortunately, "advanced manufacturing" is still more a goal than a reality. When we get to the point when high school teachers know what geometry it takes to running a milling machine, when we teach chemistry as essential to laying up composite materials, then we will know that we have arrived in the new economy. For now, that new economy is elsewhere, in places like China and Germany.