As I wrote in one of my columns last year (“Smartphones are changing everything,” August 2011), when I give a keynote I like to use a service called Poll Everywhere — the same technology at the heart of the American Idol voting process. I put a poll on the front screen and audience members can reply by text or online with their smartphones, laptops or tablets. The results start to appear on the screen instantly — it’s a very powerful tool.
There’s one question I pose at the start of every talk: “when do you think we will see an economic recovery?” After running more than 200 polls over four years based on this question, I can tell you the majority of North Americans and Europeans I’ve encountered think the economic recovery is at least six months to two years away, or more than two years away. Few offer up the answer “It’s happening right now.” (And of course, I always have a few who go for the option, “Run for the hills! It’s all over!” I figure they might have been up late at the bar the night before.)
So the majority of my audiences — which represent virtually every type of industry and region from the heartland of the US to major global cities — are still skeptical about the future and economic recovery.
Except for one distinct group: North American manufacturers.
In the past year I’ve addressed 1,000 manufactures at major conferences in Orlando and Las Vegas, and at both events an overwhelming 70% indicated the recovery is happening now. At a February 2011 event in Ohio, 200 executives in the sector — one of the hardest hit during the downturn — indicated a similar positive outlook. As did executives at advanced robotics manufacturer Genesis Systems in Davenport, Iowa, where I spoke in April.
What’s driving this optimism? Manufacturers have been innovating like mad for the past decade, and are more likely than any other sector to bring the North American economy roaring back. We’ve seen them focus on agility-based manufacturing, which allows them to change their product faster so they can deal with a higher rate of change at the consumer level. They’ve completely automated the design process with powerful tools such as AutoCAD (which now even runs on an iPad) to such a degree that they’ve mastered the skills of rapid concept generation, rapid concept development and rapid prototyping. They’ve become experts at mass customization and rapid time to market. Not to mention learning to win the battle against offshore competition by mastering the one key advantage they have: time.
The sophistication of the machinery North American manufacturers use places them ahead of the pack. As one executive told me, “The education level of our workforce has increased so much — the machinists in this industry do trigonometry in their heads.”
That’s why a comment in the San Francisco Herald in July 2009 was so bang on: “We don’t have to give up on manufacturing — it will be a different type of manufacturing.”
That’s what’s happening now. There’s also a lot of experimentation with new manufacturing business models. One of the most fascinating involves micro-factories, where the average Joe can design a product and have it built to spec.
Take a look at Ponoko for some fascinating insight on the future of manufacturing, where the average Joe can design a product and have it built to spec. And then think about the rapidly emerging concept of 3D printing, 3D printers and the inevitable shift to “additive manufacturing” (laying down additional quantities of material to create a product) from “subtractive manufacturing” (based on cutting, drilling and bashing metal) which has been used for more than 100 years
Who’d a thunk it? While most people are still skeptical about the pace of the future, it’s the manufacturing folks who are most positive of all.