When people talk about manufacturing these days--assuming they're not talking about 3D printing--they mostly imagine old-fashioned assembly lines, noise and monotonous, repetitive work. Of course there are still some sites like that, but two manufacturing plants I visited recently were anything but. These were quiet, attentive, clean places, full of thoughtful, creative people.
The first factory, in Sheffield, England, was part of a growing multinational engineering firm called Gripple. The company makes suspension devices and cable for anything you might choose to hang from a ceiling or a roof: lights, heating ducts, signs. The company is endlessly inventive--in any one year, 25 percent of its products are brand new. And much of that innovation derives from people in the factory who think of new designs or uses for the products they make.
Far from the dehumanizing shed of automatons, the Gripple factory floor is bright, open, and beautiful. It sits inside a 19th century gun factory and is all red brick and brightly-painted ironwork. Upstairs I saw break-out rooms where product teams regularly brainstorm new ideas or applications for the gripples they make. Staff here choose their hours and their vacation times; there is no HR department, and there aren't any forms. Colleagues trust each other to deliver and those who don't rarely have to be fired; surrounded by highly-motivated, creative people, shirkers choose to leave.
A few months later, I visited one of the Scotland offices of W.L. Gore. Many of the same features struck me: the quiet intent and concentration, the steady heartbeat of work. At Gore, people choose what to work on and when. Delicate instruments for heart surgery are meticulously assembled in an atmosphere of calm productivity. Self-managed teams, with discretionary time for their own projects, are at the heart of Gore's famed creativity.
I reflect on these two visits now because, in the clamor to return manufacturing jobs to the United States, an image has grown up which implies that this is necessarily low-level, low-skilled work which receives only low pay. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gripple and W.l. Gore are renowned for their creativity and innovation--much of which comes from their teams' detailed understanding of every aspect of their highly complex products. When you outsource manufacturing, you lose that precious feedback loop. What you (might) gain in profit you lose in collective intelligence.
Let's be careful not to sentimentalize manufacturing. Much of it is dull and boring and some of it is dirty. But if making things is your business, there is only way to improve: be there.