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American Hustle: U.S. Manufacturers Need to Lose their Maintain Mentality

A U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance is far from a given. If ever there was a time for manufacturing companies to be out in front, now is it. So why are many mid-market manufacturers still operating like it’s the Dark Ages—in silos reminiscent of medieval craft guilds?

Too many of us are just talking to ourselves, working in our business and not on our business. Meanwhile, we’re missing opportunities to be part of a larger, collective effort to ensure America can once again dominate the global economic stage.

This issue was brought to a head recently when I attended the Forbes Reinventing America Summit in Chicago. The event gathered leaders of the next industrial revolution for a non-partisan discussion about the role of heartland innovation in the U.S. economic recovery.

As president of Bi-Link, a 53-year-old, family-owned global mechanical component supplier, there was no question I was going to attend. We’re always looking for fresh perspectives and ideas, and the conference certainly delivered. It was a fascinating three days, during which I met many people—industrial executives, entrepreneurs, academics, elected officials and more.

Whom didn’t I meet? Other mid-market manufacturers. I kept looking around for more companies like Bi-Link. Where are they? Why am I the only one here?

During the summit’s welcome reception, Jan Rivkin, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, spoke about one outgrowth of globalization. He referred to the shrinking of “the commons” in America—the common resources that companies rely on to run a business: an educated populace, strong rule of law, a vibrant network of suppliers, sources of innovation and knowledge creation.

Let that sink in: a vibrant network of suppliers. In other words, we’re the commons. If reshoring is really going to happen, mid-market manufacturers and their clients need to collaborate more. But that would take disrupting many long-entrenched cultural mindsets and processes.

Where do we start?

Move Up the Supply Chain

These days, it’s not so much about how easily you can move your products as how you can get ideas and solutions to seamlessly move from concept to large-scale production. Open innovation means nothing if manufacturers aren’t part of the conversation as early as possible. The sooner we look at a design, the better. That way, the billionth part can be just as great as the first. Something else important happens: We start seeing opportunities to adapt to the needs of our clients. We need to be retooling all the time.

Embrace Innovation Wherever It’s Happening

Nobody does innovation better than the U.S., but manufacturers tend not to look outside their own factory walls. This can be especially true in a family business, where Grandpa’s way of doing things looms large. We typically hate startups. The Maker Movement elicits distain. Instead, try to see such developments as a wake-up call.

The Maker Movement is a response to frustrations with the manufacturing community—inefficiencies and lack of access. How do we address that? Look to startups, accelerators and incubators for new ideas; broadening your horizons can lead to innovation. When I tell other manufacturers that our business in the U.S. grew once Bi-Link opened internationally, they don’t want to hear it. But if we want to stay relevant, we need to start fishing in some different ponds.

Marketing and Networking Matters

Being competitive and relevant in the changing U.S. manufacturing landscape takes getting outside your comfort zone and joining larger conversations, like the one I was part of at the Forbes summit. It also takes marketing. Standing at a trade show booth waiting for the right person to come by isn’t enough. Embrace strategic efforts to position your brand. Think about what makes your company different.

When you talk to others, have your elevator pitch ready. Here’s Bi-Link’s: “We’re the coolest company in the least cool industry.” Think of marketing as your least expensive person in the field and put something into play.

Vendor Requalification

The supply chain and procurement folks should be changing things up as well. It can’t just be about price. Look at with whom you’re engaging. Do they challenge conventional wisdom? Are they always solving problems? Start tasking them—ask what you can be doing differently. If they don’t have an answer, start shopping for another partner.

At Bi-Link, we’re big on disrupting processes. We’re doing things differently and I’d like to see more of that happening for the good of America. Don’t be content just to wait for the Manufacturing Renaissance. The ship of opportunity is just offshore. Forget waiting for it to dock. Go swim out there to get it.

Ray Ziganto is president of Chicago-based Bi-Link, a 53-year-old global mechanical component supplier offering a unique synthesis of technologies and manufacturing solutions to support engineers at Fortune 500 companies in the electronics, automotive, medical and consumer industries. Bi-Link is headquartered in Bloomingdale, Ill., with wholly owned facilities in North America, Asia and Mexico.

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