Monday, January 12, 2009

How to Regain American Manufacturing Jobs (Part II)

This blog is broken into three parts. Part I describes costly manufacturing sector problems. Part II explains the primary causes of the problems. Part III offers solutions.

The Manufacturing Problem—Product and Process Failures
Manufacturing plants typically take some raw materials (steel, plastic, powders, etc.), process them (heat, press, stamp, mold, form, etc.), and then assemble different pieces together. Unfortunately, many of the products made are unacceptable—that is, they do not conform to requirements.

The parts produced by a manufacturing process are supposed to be identical, however, no two parts are exactly the same, and that is the biggest problem that manufacturers face (though many don’t realize this fact). The variation from part to part means that some of the parts won’t conform to customer requirements. More importantly, the ones that do conform will still vary in their performance. For example, all 2002 Model X washing machines do not fail with the exact amount of usage. Some will fail early—and some may last for a long time.

Imagine yourself trying to make a stew. You buy a soup stock, vegetables, and meat, put it together and heat it. Suppose that your family enjoys the stew very much, and they ask you to make it again the following week. Will the second stew be identical to the first? Might the stock be slightly more or less salty? Might the vegetables be more or less ripe? Might the meat be more or less tender? As a result of the variation, your family may have a different reaction to your second stew.

Most manufacturers cannot afford to tolerate much variation. When parts vary, they do not fit together the same way. For example, we bought a two-pack of spaghetti sauces, in which one lid was sealed properly, and the other was not. The improperly sealed container had a strong foul odor of plastic, and the contents were unsafe and discarded.

Products sometimes fail internal testing (at production facilities), but products also fail in the hands of consumers. In fact, data on product failures in the marketplace abounds. Several agencies collect such data (such as and Many websites provide outlets for consumers to review and complain about products (such as,,,, among numerous others).

There are three primary reasons for product failures:
1. inadequate engineering (design shortcomings)
2. variation in production (so parts perform differently for consumers) and
3. customer abuse (misuse of a product)

The first two reasons are far more prevalent—as seen in the data. Part I of this series illustrated the tremendous costs of these failures. Part III of this series explains how manufacturers can prevent these product failures and their expensive consequences.

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