...and it's not what you think.
I recently returned from LGO's annual international plant trek, and this year we went to Asia, China and Japan to be specific. It was really cool to see manufacturing in these two countries in particular, especially because of everything that I've read and learned about China's seemingly ever-growing industrial power and Japan's ability to manufacture some of the highest quality products in the world. In China, we visited a couple of LGO partner companies, Nike and Cisco, as well as one of Cisco's suppliers, Jabil. The facilities and operations were impressive (especially at Jabil), and it was really eye-opening to see the scale at which manufacturing is done in China and the economic growth that is occurring in Shanghai - there seemed to be as many cranes constructing new buildings in the skyline as there were existing structures!
Japan was also impressive, though in a different way. We were able to visit Sony and Nissan, both of which were interesting in their own right. At Sony they showed us some of the things they are doing to simplify and improve their products, as well as one of their Blu-Ray player assembly lines. While one of our professor's told us their manufacturing was "average" for Japan, it was probably the best balanced assembly cell I have ever seen. While Sony has had some problems over the past few years, it isn't because they don't know how to put together their products efficiently. Nissan was nothing short of incredible. I've seen a number or U.S. automakers, and worked at one of Caterpillar's engine facilities, so I was really excited to see how this type of manufacturing was done in Japan - being the epitome of quality manufacturing that it is. The facility was quite old, and you could tell that it had been modified and updated with the progression of time. However, the facility was very clean, the updates all seemed to work well with the existing line, and there was not evidence of "band-aid"-like fixes that I have seen in many assembly lines. As well, there was a lot of automation in the factory, but it was automation that made sense. Rather than having a lot of sexy robots or automatic assembly tooling (which was mostly manual), there were a lot of AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) that did the majority of material handling. Not only did this free up human hands to do more of the value-added work, but the robots were purely functional (read "kind of ugly and not very showy"), and they did their job very well. Finally, the Q&A for our tour was handled by two fairly young HR reps, which would typically make for a more "Q" and little "A" session, but they could answer all our questions! And they didn't avoid any of them! (which is typically they case when you ask a company a non-flattering question). It was impressive that even the folks in HR understood the company's mission and strategy enough to answer the detailed questions that our class would put forward, and that they didn't shy away.
Finally, to the kids in factories. At Nissan, one of the first things I noticed was that there were little kids drawings hanging up along the tour route. The drawings were of things like the new Nissan Leaf, the GT-R, the assembly line, or kids ideas for what might make a cool car - I think one was a bubble and another had octagonal wheels. This was really cool, because it showed the Japanese dedication to manufacturing. Sure, kids everywhere draw cars, but in Japan, kids go to the factory on a field trip, and get to see engineering and manufacturing first-hand! I have never seen anything like this in the U.S., where factories are big, dirty, scary, dangerous places and no place for children (insert frowny-face and "keep-out" sign here). However, it's no wonder the Japanese are so good at manufacturing, because it is what kids want grow up to do! While you couldn't take pictures to maintain privacy, the factory was an inviting place that was well-maintained and clean, and they had figured out a way to have kids visit and be a part of the community. Contrast that to the U.S., where kids want to be doctors in lawyers, and while these are great professions (I have an attorney, an endodontist, and a pharmacist in my family), it means we're really good at lawsuits and hypochondria. The takeaway for me? If we are serious about revitalizing U.S. manufacturing, one of the things we need to ensure is that it is a cool thing to do, and one of the ways to do that will be to figure out how to get kids into factories.