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May 28, 2021
The promises of “digitalization” and “sustainability”, and similarly opaque principles, carry a tone of perfectibility that is at odds with so much of what manufacturers know. Changing what we believe changes what choices we make - and more than that!

A new report on U.S. manufacturing trends and priorities has some provocative insights to the ideas influencing decision-makers today, and the goals they claim to have adopted for their organization. The 2021 State of Manufacturing Report released by Fictiv – a digital sourcing platform for manufactured parts – is well worth your attention for the way it brings together so many of the disparate points that compete for primacy in our attentions and often collide with our agendas.

The report is focused especially on the issue of supply chains, how well they are performing and how individual businesses (particularly manufacturers in automotive, aerospace, medical device, robotics, and consumer electronics markets) are faring within those supply chains.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic reframed how we view our roles in society. We had to re-account for our presence in this life. It forced a singular new objective into the agenda of every person, and then left us to consider and argue among each other, and to wonder, often hopelessly, if we were making the right decisions. It standardized anxiety. There has been, and still remains, a collapse of priority-setting – individual, communal, and corporate precedents all being combined and reordered, without a new context that we might build within and thereby renew individual confidence.

But the pandemic is not the only factor working against confidence-building – for individuals and organizations, especially for manufacturers. New ethical or even moral priorities have been urged on us for decades now, since the start of this century at least. The pandemic brought no “cease fire” from regulators and financiers and the demands they make, which influence so much of what individuals and organizations try to accomplish for themselves.

From the 2021 State of Manufacturing Report we learn that 95% of industrial leaders believe the pandemic had long-term effects on their businesses, and a comparable 95% believe that “digital transformation” is essential to the future success of their business.

A critical point is that the pandemic exposed weak supply chains: 94% of survey respondents are concerned about their current supply chains, and 92% say their supply chains are obstructing new product development.

More encouraging is that large majorities of manufacturers aim to “future-proof” their organizations, with 62% pursuing a re-shoring strategy, 89% working to adopt “sustainable manufacturing,” and 84% seeking to implement on-demand manufacturing.

“The overriding takeaway from this year’s report is that the pandemic served as a catalyst to turn emerging digital ideas into strategies that are now irrevocably changing supply chains,” observed Fictiv CEO Dave Evans.

There is a lot to consider about this view of post-pandemic manufacturing, and where and for whom these new emphases are most applicable, but the clear suggestion is that businesses’ priorities have been reset. Manufacturing – a sector that for so long emphasized cost-savings and revenue growth (who can forget EBITDA?) – now seems to have reoriented itself to new standards of performance.

I am open to persuasion that this is a reliable conclusion from the survey because I believe the disruption brought on by the pandemic was that profound, especially in the way that disruption collided with manufacturers’ long-standing concerns about skills shortages, quality control and product liability, and other threats to the work manufacturers do every day.

However, if the pandemic was the catalyst for any change in the way that people and organizations plan their futures, I remain skeptical that they will find their new objectives so well prepared for them. The promises of “digitalization” and “sustainability”, and similarly opaque principles carry a tone of perfectibility that is at odds with so much of what manufacturers never feel the need to question. Changing what we believe inevitably changes what choices we make, and finally who we are.  

Metalcasters know that perfection is impossible. As a community and as individuals they are drawn together by experience, experience that includes costly failure as well as reliable routines. Overlaying the experience there is often a fellowship that supports individuals as they strive for improvement. Underlying it are the scientific principles that define what is and is not possible, and what may yet be possible if human nature can withstand the inevitable gaps in strength or understanding that precede failure or disaster.

Those gaps in human nature can be as instructive as any statistical finding about manufacturers’ agendas or individuals’ goals. The experiences of the past year will surely change what choices manufacturers make, but only the inexperienced will change themselves as a result.