#189 – Inside Our Industry – What People Don’t Know About Manufacturing Is Hurting Us

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

The following article by Ethan Karp that appeared on Forbes.com “hits the nail on the head.” Manufacturing facilities of today are not the same as the ones of our grandparents, and even our parents.  

What People Don’t Know About Manufacturing Is Hurting Us
Ethan Karp, Contributor, Forbes.com > Business > Manufacturing. Feb 21, 2024

Manufacturing growth has been steady, at worst, in recent years, so it’s hard to imagine how one might draw a straight line from the industry to a toilet. Manufacturers will be, um, relieved to know we are not in one but rather akin to one, at least when it comes to something called the knowledge illusion. And we’re also in the good company of ballpoint pens and zippers. Allow me to explain.

Over the past decade or more, the continued technological advancements within manufacturing have grown at odds with the public’s understanding—or lack thereof. Some of the most cutting edge and downright coolest things in the world are happening at American manufacturers, things that will shape our future and touch the lives of every human being. But ask your average Jane or Joe on the street about them, and they’d likely have no idea how things work inside a manufacturer. Here’s why:

  1. We fall victim to the knowledge illusion. The truth is, we aren’t quite as smart as we think we are. At least, so says the knowledge illusion—laid out in a bookby Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach a few years ago. It reveals that human beings believe they know much more about how things work than they actually do. When we’re asked to explain these things, the illusion fades.In Sloman and Fernbach’s research, they asked folks to explain toilets, ballpoint pens, and zippers. Although they claimed they knew how each worked before, suddenly when asked to go into detail, they couldn’t. The illusion they’d held in their minds faded.I think manufacturing is experiencing the knowledge illusion. Americans, by and large, support the industry. Perhaps they even feel that they understand it—machinery, assembly lines, massive warehouses. Supplies going from one place to another, put together, sent to a store, bought by you. But if you asked people to explain how a manufacturing operation actually works, my guess is that illusion would disintegrate.
  2. The average American is very disconnected from manufacturing. We broadly know the history of Henry Ford and perhaps have heard stories from a parent or grandparent who made their career at a factory. And we certainly generally grasp the idea of making things—a carpenter crafting a chair, a pizza shop baking a pizza, a home builder putting in a foundation. We have a clear picture of the building trades.But manufacturing plants tend to be tucked away in industrial neighborhoods and poorly traveled rural areas. We rarely see inside them, and therefore, struggle to grasp or even give much thought to the processes and production value hidden behind factory walls.
  3. Baseline curiosity isn’t enough. Manufacturing is not an easy industry to quickly grasp. So even when folks begin taking an interest in the field, their curiosity may putter out before they’ve reached a deeper knowledge about all it entails.Take the concept of the digital twin. Pound for pound, it’s one of the most fascinating technologies impacting the industry, it’s potential among the most significant. Using hundreds or more sensors, the technology recreates a physical machine in digital form so that technicians—or even an AI engine—can better monitor and connect that machine to others along the assembly line. It’s hard enough to convey to a veteran of the industry what that could mean for how manufacturers operate, for machine maintenance, and for supply chain efficiency. Now try explaining the intricacies and benefits of digital twin to someone who doesn’t have a foundation in manufacturing.Gaining real industry knowledge takes not only a baseline curiosity, but a real interest in the industry paired with resources to learn.

How Manufacturers Can Create More Interest

The sobering reality is that Americans’ limited interest in manufacturing has a real-world impact. The industry’s labor gap is expected to reach 2.1 million jobs by 2030.

Reversing that growing gap will require thinking outside the box to create much deeper curiosity and knowledge about manufacturing. That could take the shape of live tours at local manufacturers. That could take the shape of virtual experiences that help people explore the ways manufacturing is changing—including the many burgeoning technologies—from the comfort of their computers or mobile phones. Or it could take the shape of crossover events with local school districts that get kids invested in manufacturing from a younger age. Remember, the knowledge illusion says most of these folks may believe they already understand manufacturing—so it’s vital to show, not just tell, all the groundbreaking technological advancement that is transforming our industry before our eyes.

If we do, we’ll get more people engaged in and informed about our industry. Enthusiasm will naturally follow—and so will a new generation of skilled workers. If people care enough and know enough, only then will they join us.

Ethan Karp, President and CEO of non-profit consulting group MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.