Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Opinion: Why can’t we take back manufacturing?

June 4, 2014
By Nigel Southway

The sentiment that I hear from many in the manufacturing community is that we have far too many policy research, planning and special interest groups debating the health of manufacturing, but not enough productive and focused action on the difficult task of taking back manufacturing.

The Canadian economy in almost all sectors continues to have significant challenges with ongoing decline in value-added manufacturing content that will continue to threaten jobs and youth career opportunities. We are trapped in this vicious circle of reduced capital and social investment in the manufacturing industry that will generate an ongoing shortage of skills, professional experience and know-how that will further weaken the incubation infrastructure for future innovation and product development, as well as the ability to sustain any existing manufacturing capability on a competitive basis.

No real industrial plans
The truth is we lack a well co-ordinated national and provincial manufacturing and industrial policy and action plan to shake us out of this tail-spin. What is hindering more than helping us to reverse this economic performance death spiral is the significant lack of team focus to productively get on with the planning process at all levels of decision-making and planning within government, industry and the various technical associations and societies, and their related academic circles.

At the policy and planning level, we have many different — and mainly academic-based — study groups, and some industry sector-focused groups in Ontario feeding off the public trough, who are debating and continuously performing analysis and generating reports on the subject of the health of manufacturing, and what ails it. Reports that hardly get read — and almost none are acted upon — are published on a regular basis.


We have many academic-focused groups continuously reviewing educational and skill regeneration issues related to industry that unfortunately produce superficial proposals due to the lack of industrial input.

We have businesses, many of them painfully small, who have been forced through excessive competitive compression to shed much of the infrasture that may have been available to self-plan the future, with the remaining over-taxed individual management teams struggling to make or execute day-to-day decisions.

We have a huge contingent of industry consulting professionals who are either underfunded or unfunded, and are significantly distracted by chasing the next and increasingly diminishing engagements.

We have displaced and mainly unemployed industry practitioners that are also a wasted resource and powerless to meaningfully participate and assist in such a planning process.

We have special interest groups, such as engineering and management associations, operating in debilitating silos who are contradicting each other’s directions, policies and proposals, who are performing confusing government lobby activities and are locked in political-level conflicts with no positive outcome possible.

We have a local government and opposition parties recently more attentive to the “job crisis,” but who appear unfocused on the real issue of supporting industry in some structured way with meaningful policies and plans of action; all this with the overreach of indifference shown at the federal level for a unified policy for local industry.

So what we have is a huge waste of collective talent and energy, and a resulting dysfunctional manufacturing or industrial community that has great intentions but badly needs to get organized.

All this wasted activity is happening in a critical time window where immediate action and focus is essential to participate in the recovery of our manufacturing sectors here in Canada.

The fix
If we were at war, we would form a war cabinet. Well, it’s almost at that point of desperation for some of our citizens.

Local government has to be the catalyst to the solution. They must prepare a process for planning the solution to the manufacturing sector’s issues. This should involve defining who are the members of the manufacturing community that are best positioned to both represent and assist with such a planning process.

This planning team list must be defined and legislated with government funds into an active planning team structure with key members who will be 100 per cent tasked to engineer the solutions. The plans will be set against timed deadlines and will be presented to government in an expedient manner. The best strategic planning facilitators must be employed to manage the planning process and attempt to generate consensus on as wide a basis as possible. But we have to ensure a resolution is reached.

At the completion of this planning process, the output will be presented to the local parliament and it is suggested that it should be a cross partisan coalition approach with limited disruption via extraneous lobbying to ensure rapid concurrence at the political level.

The results will be the formation of a policy and detailed implementation plan for our manufacturing sectors.

Key team leaders must be appointed to lead various elements of the plan, and the journey needs to be one of continuous planned evolution that must sustain, long-term, through any government changes.

We need to convince our local political leadership that before we can apply any solutions, we need a strong unified planning process, and we need to manage the selection of the solutions and redeploy the huge waste of effort that’s currently happening in the industry. It’s time to really take back manufacturing.

Nigel Southway is the secretary and past chair of SME Toronto, and a Take Back Manufacturing advocate.

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