Making Change: The Future of Manufacturing

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It's been battered by economic downturns, vast changes in the marketplace, and fierce global competition. Manufacturing has shrunk significantly in Northeast Ohio. Is it dying? Economic development expert Ed Morrison says no.

Ed Morrison: It's changing into a much more competitive, globally competitive environment. Those manufacturers that are not changing, are dying. But those manufacturers that are changing, are surviving and in fact are providing tremendous amount of wealth.

Case in point: Thogus Products, an Avon Lake-based manufacturer. Kathleen Hlavin's father co-founded the business in 1958, and she is now its president.

Kathleen Hlavin: We're a plastic injection molder. We have actually three lines. We have a proprietary line, which is tube and hose fittings. We produce parts for automotive, which is clips, straps, and specialty items. And then we also have a custom line.

Thogus is busier than ever, and getting ready to build a bigger facility, Hlavin says. But a few years back, the situation was much different. Her reaction to that slow period was to branch out into new areas, producing larger parts and taking on some assembly work. Hlavin says expansion is vital, but you must remember to play to your strengths.

Kathleen Hlavin: You have to look for next thing, but it has to fit in with what you do. It isn't always a good idea to go into a lotta things you don't know much about. You have to take what you do well and expand on that. And if it fits in, great. If it doesn't, you gotta let it go.

Continuing to find new opportunities in business is key to success, experts say. But successful manufacturers do more than that, according to Fatima Weathers, vice president and COO of CAMP, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that supports manufacturers.

Fatima Weathers: One of the major characteristics would be that they're companies have figured out how to innovate their processes; that they've learned how to operate in the global economy; that they've learned how to develop their people to take advantage of new technologies, and implement processes that are cost-effective.

But if increasing efficiency can strengthen a company, it can shrink it as well, something Steve Gage, president of CAMP, says most folks fail to recognize.

Steve Gage: If you're growing your productivity at 3 1/2% per year, in 20 years, you're gonna need half the number of employees to produce same amount. We're probably operating now with 35% fewer employees than we had in, say, 1980, but we're producing over 100% more.

According to Fatima Weathers, the days of vast employment in manufacturing are probably over.

Fatima Weathers: Manufacturing like it was in the 40s, and the 50s, and the 60s is indeed a thing of the past.

Manufacturers are no longer hiring masses of people with little education, Weathers says. John Colm, president of WIRE-Net, the West Side Industrial Retention and Expansion Network, describes today's manufacturing workforce as well-trained and highly skilled.

John Colm: The machinist today is a computer programmer, an entirely different set of skills than a skilled machinist of 25 years ago.

Tom Strbac has worked in manufacturing for 30 years. He says increased computerization and automation, including reliance on robotics, has transformed manufacturing. And workforce education, he says, has not kept up.

Tom Strbac: There's nowhere that you can get practical training or experience with this type of equipment. It's very sophisticated, and it takes quite a bit of skill, and experience, and time spent on the machines to learn it.

John Colm says the lack of training and re-training programs is a big problem.

John Colm: If you looked at the 10,000 people that are no longer working at LTV steel in this latest restructuring in the steel industry, where is there a model of a program that can help with that kind of dislocation?

So manufacturing is suffering not only from job loss, but from a lack of adequately trained workers to take the jobs that exist. Strbac is working with a couple of partners to develop a new educational program that will allow students to get hands-on manufacturing training while producing real products. It's an idea currently in search of funding. But regardless of the success or failure of that, or any particular venture - whether it involves worker training or manufacturing support - Steve Gage, of CAMP, says manufacturing will continue to be a powerful force in the economy of the region.

Steve Gage: We do have quite a few innovative people here in the manufacturing world that are finding a way to survive and probably continue to provide jobs here for decades, for many, many decades.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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