On February 19th, I attended an event on “Building the Future: Manufacturing’s Software Revolution” at the Siemens Motor Manufacturing Plant in Norwood. The Atlantic monthly initiated the event, Siemens generously underwrote it, and the governor of Ohio, the mayor of Cincinnati, and a U.S. congressman from northeastern Ohio all came and spoke.
Domestic manufacturing is viable again. That’s because of discoveries of new sources of energy (particularly natural gas from fracking), rising costs of transportation, and increasing wages in Asia and elsewhere. The domestic manufacturing boom also benefits from the understanding that design and production benefit from the closest possible integration, something difficult when designers live on one continent and producers live on another.
Perhaps the key development has been product lifecycle management (PLM) software which enables manufacturers to quickly simulate product designs over and over again, to insure that they can be efficiently manufactured, used, and serviced, before any steel is cut or plastic molded. The Siemens plant in Norwood, first constructed in 1898, is an excellent example of how software technology can turn a potentially obsolete facility into a state-of-the-art factory.
I heard a lot of good news at the event, including Siemens’s generous $67 million grant of software to Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. The grant means that Cincinnati State students will be familiar with the software that five hundred companies in Ohio use, allowing them to hit the ground running from their first co-op experience. The grant exemplifies Siemens’s commitment to building the new middle class. And much of the event focused on the transformation of once-devastated Youngstown, Ohio, into a leader in software-aided manufacturing.
I attended the event because I’d love to see something similar to the Youngstown story happen in the aging industrial satellite towns of Norwood and Oakley. Around the turn of the twentieth-century, Norwood emerged as a major manufacturing center and Oakley was on its way to becoming the global center of the machine tool industry (by the World War II era, the Soviets called machine tools “Cincinnatis”). But in the last decades of the century, much of the industry of Norwood and Oakley disappeared, including the GM plant that sprawl across the area around the Siemens plant and virtually all of Oakley’s machine tool industry. Bringing some of those jobs back is crucial to the future health of our city and region.
I also attended the event because I live nearby and hope that someday we will see the emergence of a walkable city within a city in the area. I often marvel at the range of institutions, facilities, amenities, and talented people that are within a three-mile radius of Xavier University where I work. A manufacturing base would go a long way to making that city within a city viable.
My interest in walkable cities is driven, in part, by environmental concerns. We appear to be awash in cheap energy at the moment but I remain skeptical about the long-term project of globalization (the importation of, say, Thai beer has always been my go-to example of the craziness of globalization; transporting Thai beer thousands of miles to the craft beer center of the world strikes me as “coals to Newcastle”). Even if fossil fuels remain cheap enough to justify the transportation costs, I’m worried that the global climate can stand the pressure (despite our own icy experience, globally this past January is the fourth warmest on record). So the revival of local manufacturing strikes me as a good and prudent idea. I’m also interested in a walkable city-within-a-city because of the pleasure I get from walking diverse, engaging, and pleasant city streets and the distinct lack of pleasure I get from driving, sitting in traffic, parking, and paying repair and insurance bills.
So, of course, I walked to the event. As I approached, a dozen late-model SUVs and luxury sedans cruised past me toward the parking lot, attracting not the least attention from the several security guards present. My arrival, in contrast, raised modest suspicions. Nothing came of it as I assured the guards I had indeed registered for the event; we even had a chuckle over my pride in being the only “walk-in” that entire morning. But it was my first inkling that perhaps I would find myself out of step with some aspects of the proceedings.
The room was filled with smart, dedicated, and good people. But I can’t say it was the greenest, most environmentally-conscious event I’ve ever attended. To be sure, a major topic was energy efficiency, which makes as good sense environmentally as it does economically. And the logic of project lifestyle management software certainly reduces waste (an elaboration of the old “measure twice, cut once” principle). But as the speakers explained the advantages of product lifecycle management software, I listened in vain for the discussion of the alpha and omega of economic activity, extraction on one end and disposal on the other. In theory, PLM software includes concern about extraction and recycling, but you wouldn’t know it from this event.
Instead I heard about the tens of billions of dollars in recent manufacturing investment and the anticipated $90 billion in new investment in the chemical industry alone. And if any idea dominated the whole event, it was the need for speed – and the pace of innovation – in a global economy. I am not blind to the benefits of new jobs and economic revitalization, but as I thought of all the accumulated capital that needs to be invested at a profit, and the speed at which those profits are to be generated, I shuddered for the environment.
Will the biosphere handle all these additional extraction and waste? The amount of material that passes through our economy is already enormous. Researchers calculate that supplying the needs of the average middle-class family moves some 4 million pounds of material through the economy every year, much of it toxic and all of it eventually dumped into our air, land, and water. No matter how efficient our new methods, they will still require mining, pumping, burning, and disposing of countless tons of material. We need to be smart and responsible about what we produce.
We need good paying jobs and manufacturing can supply many of them. But we need a sense of proportion and we must ask if we need all these things we will be producing. The event included a presentation from a representative of the medical technology field; as a cancer survivor, I do not underestimate the usefulness of technology provided to doctors for gathering information about the human body and repairing it. But I’m skeptical that every product the market will bear represents an addition to our quality of life. And I’m doubtful that we can simply grow ourselves out of income inequality and the shame of poverty. Instead, I suspect the environmental degradation this will entail will only worsen poverty and inequality.
The emphasis on speed and the pace of innovation troubled me the most, in large part because I fully understand that the global for-profit economy demands it. But the emphasis on speed trickles out of the economy to touch every aspect of our society. One expression of that was the governor’s emphatic wish that the educational system encourage our children to start thinking about careers IN THE FIRST GRADE (his emphasis)! This is the educational system of Dickens’s Hard Times updated for our era, molding kids for the jobs we have determined the market will demand.
Career planning in the first grade does not sound like the way to create the thoughtful and responsible citizens – skeptical, questioning, values-oriented, and, yes, innovative – that we so desperately need. I’m not optimist about turning things around, given our priorities; the grateful president of Cincinnati State pointed out that Siemens’s $67 million grant nearly equaled his institution’s annual budget of $75 million. But can we really dispense with education that prepares students to define, analyze, and assess qualities, goals, and values? Is it all about preparing young people to take their places in the social machinery without a thought of what the machinery produces, or what kind of society it creates?
Nevertheless, I found the entire event informative and stimulating. One speaker asked the crowd (of perhaps 250 people) if anyone had ever been in a factory before. A remarkable percentage (I’d estimate 90%, including your faithful correspondent) raised their hands. As the speaker said, we were in Ohio, a state with a great tradition of manufacturing. Siemens, I should add, appears to have a series of admirable environmental initiatives in operation at the plant. And the sponsors and attendees emphasized the need to rebuild the middle class and attack the underlying sources of poverty. Click here to view the entire event on streaming video. Don’t miss the final interview with U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan; Ryan’s point that we should think more about the need to make things and less about the need to make money provided one of the more hopeful messages of the event.