American business owners are accustomed to change; it is, after all, the only constant in life. On the heels of the pandemic and the supply chain meltdown, due to Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine, and on an Earth that is experiencing record-breaking extreme weather, sweeping change is underway in how US factories conduct business.
Branching Out or Out on a Limb?
Until recently, Nokian Tyres of Finland produced 80% of its product in Russia, where energy was cheap. But with Russia starting a war against Ukraine, and its economy falling into disarray, Nokian made the strategic decision to leave Russia, take the economic hit of the pull-out, and find safer, more stable European locations for production.
The company conducted a comprehensive search for qualities that would identify the best alternative locations, including proximity to warring nations, geopolitical stability, cost and availability of traditional and green energy, transportation infrastructure, affordable and qualified labor, business-friendly leadership and more.
Like Nokian Tyres, American businesses now must be clear-eyed about the risks of doing business in places like Russia and China. They must keep geopolitics, NATO membership and a host of other factors in mind when considering where to reach out for international opportunities and for supply chain access.
There’s No Such Thing as Free Shipping
Speaking of foreign supply chains, it is telling that 90% of the world’s trade is done via ships sailing across oceans and that 100% of US imports arrive by ship. All that trade and all of those ships contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; the shipping sector accounts for 3% of humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions, with most ships burning heavy fuel oil.
The International Maritime Organization regulates shipping and it has upped its target goal for reducing emissions. The new goal can be achieved by turning to “slow-steaming,” by using advanced ship design, by reintroducing sails to ships with 21st Century ways to harness wind power, and by transitioning to cleaner fuels. The improvements will take investment, meaning that it won’t be cheap to ship merchandise across the ponds and it will never be free.
Speaking of water, water use for the manicured lawn – along with fertilizer use, equipment use and labor costs – must plummet in response to the droughts, heat waves and record-breaking temperatures across the nation.
Homeowners have been rethinking lawns for a while now, as have universities and public parks. Their shift toward using native plants and xeriscaping is catching on at manufacturing plants, too, where it has always been smart to economize on process water use. Manufacturers that take pride in having a modern building on a sprawl of Kentucky bluegrass are realizing that replacing the lawn with native plants is not just kinder on the water budget; it also provides habitat for birds and pollinators while eliminating the need for a crew perpetually working to water, grow and then mow down the same lawn.
A Conducive Climate
Speaking of hydrating, while it is an option to cultivate drought-resistant grasses and shrubs – and cut the water use for a landscaping – even more attention needs to be trained on keeping workers inside the factory hydrated and cool.
Heat stress is not only a concern for outdoor workers; hot indoor environments are just as hard on a body. Heat stress can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. At its mildest, heat stress causes people to slow down their activity and get foggy-headed, affecting production times. At the other extreme, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are medically dangerous and potentially deadly.
Operation managers can take action to cool their environments for the comfort, safety and health of workers, for example, by installing large fans and by using passive cooling techniques on building roofs. Those giant fans are designed to manage high airflow with low fan speed, making them energy misers. Painting the factory roof white – a passive cooling technique – is another way to cool a building without a large capital outlay. Like keeping machinery in good working order, keeping the environment in conducive working order – a comfortable temperature – makes for an operation in peak condition.
It Used to be Go Big or Go Home – Not it’s Get Onboard or Get Out of the Way
Speaking of staying in peak operating condition, advanced manufacturing is the new state of play for American companies. Advanced manufacturing is a big umbrella – so big that it has something of value to cover every producer in the country. That something might be AI algorithms, big data, robotics, vision systems, machine learning, digital twins, condition monitoring, additive manufacturing or cloud computing, but whatever it is, it’s not going to do anything except get more prevalent.
Consider this: when the farmers embrace something new, you know it’s a keeper. Ag industry leader John Deere has taken farming into the age of artificial intelligence, data analytics, satellite imagery, automation, battery power and more. If the farmers are doing it, it’s time to get onboard.
US corporations don’t have to go it alone. Uncle Sam is ready to help them. Among many other programs, Manufacturing USA has developed regional ecosystems to benefit industries and local communities, while strengthening national readiness and productivity. There now are 16 manufacturing innovation institutes in the Manufacturing USA network, where advanced manufacturing is top of mind.
For companies pondering advanced manufacturing, workforce education is an obvious concern. Universities and community colleges across the nation are listening to the needs of corporations in their areas and responding with relevant coursework. And Ed2Go, an online learning option, is making even more coursework available nationwide. Ed2Go likes to partner with academic institutions, corporations and workforce agencies, and it offers courses like “manufacturing fundamentals,” “composites technician,” “quality inspector” and “robotics technician.”
If, as they say, change is inevitable, stop trying to push the river. Instead, find the currents that align with your company charter and get ready to go with the flow.