The global economy, which includes the U.S. and its manufacturers, is in a whirlwind of transformational change. The scope and dimensions of this is difficult to grasp. We’re Not in the 20th Century Anymore, Toto, a post to this blog from a year ago, offers some thoughts on where to start. … C.H.
We’re Not in the 20th Century Anymore, Toto – from 1 May 2015
An Emerging View of Manufacturing in the 21st Century
The Industrial Age in America – a time in which the mass production of goods provided the economic focus of the country – declined during the final decades of the 20th century and swooned as the 21st century began. This isn’t a cyclic matter: 20th century manufacturing isn’t going to come back. Instead, the end of the Industrial Age in America is part of a transformation that is as sweeping as the Industrial Revolution was, when industry replaced agriculture as this nation’s economic focus.
Keep in mind that, in 1870, 70% – 80% of America’s working population was employed in agriculture. As of 2008, less than 2% was directly employed in agriculture.  Never the less, America’s farms today produce much more than ever before. America will continue to manufacture tangible products – lots of them. The way that America manufactures those products will change as dramatically as farming has changed.
“… right now we are going through a once-in-a-century transformation in business that is throwing out all of the existing rules.” 
This transformation is powered by a confluence of potent change agents, which might be loosely grouped as Globalization, Sustainability, Technology and Demographics & Trends. Globalization, Sustainability and Demographics & Trends provide insights as to the rapidly expanding context within which even quite small manufacturers must operate. Technology provides the means for transformation.
A few thoughts on the globalized context within 21st century manufacturers must operate:
>> Competition – Competitors and potential competitors exist worldwide, with more coming every day. So do suppliers and potential suppliers. Likewise, customers and potential customers. And these competitors / suppliers / customers are quickly becoming increasingly sophisticated in all aspects of globalized business.
>> Population – Since the advent of truly viable birth control, birth rates have dropped significantly, especially in economically developed nations. As a result, populations are aging. At the same time, the participation on women in all aspects of commerce has increased dramatically. Per capita GDP is increasing, notably in developing countries, resulting in more global middle class buying power.
>> Commerce is global / Politics are local – While competition is global, governments everywhere have incentive to favor their own. Issues including jobs, access to resources, taxation, entitlements and property rights continue to be contentious.
>> Financial System – The global financial system, as it exists today, is a hodge-podge of remnants from the Bretton Woods accords, socialist notions from the soviet era as well as from western nations, fiat (rather than hard) currencies, instantaneous globalized trading in currencies and financial derivatives, not to mention a diverse array of banking institutions. All of this is hardly a recipe for international financial stability.
Some thoughts on 21st century manufacturing operations:
Atomic physicist Niels Bohr once said that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Actually, it’s the being correct part that is difficult. The following are extrapolations from American manufacturing’s current situation. We’ll all see what actually happens as the 21st century unfolds.
>> Products: To beg the obvious, labor related costs in economically developed countries are much higher than in less developed countries. To be globally competitive, products manufactured in developed countries will require significantly greater intangible aspects, as opposed to the simply tangible. Above all, products need be clearly differentiable.
>> Emphasis on Return on Capital Employed (RoCE): Manufacturing is capital intensive, especially concerning fixed assets, when compared to other modes of enterprise. Accordingly, financial viability depends on sustainable RoCE, taken across the business cycle, rather than on profits per se. This change in point of view fosters longer term thinking in many respects. Organizational structure and financing are not least of these.
>> The Electro-Mechanical Spectrum: A recent essay  discussed a trend in machinery from the mechanical to the electronic. The Tesla automobile serves as a familiar example. Unmanned space vehicles offer another. The more electronic machines offer obvious advantages, including reliability and Moore’s Law initial costs. Perhaps the most important advantage is that electronic machines have a significant software component. For this reason, machines can be improved, or even retasked, through software changes. Such machines can actually improve over time, rather than just depreciate.
>> Innovation: There is nothing static about the future. 21st century manufacturers must consistently offer differentiable products that please customers while generating satisfactory returns. This requires continuous and systematic innovation in products, operating processes and, especially, business models. A prior essay looks at all three of these modes of innovation. 
There is a lot more to manufacturing in the 21st century than a single essay can even hint at. The changes involved in this “once-in-a-century transformation” are of almost seismic magnitude. And change will beget more change, even more rapidly. Stand by.
Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.
… Chuck Harrington
This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.
 Figures from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_the_United_States
 Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, quoted in Fortune magazine. http://fortune.com/2015/04/27/tien-tzuo-starting-your-own-business/. Zuora is a start-up business that is pioneering subscription based business models. For more on Zuora, see www.Zuora.com.