Does It Matter If We Still Make Things?
Willy Shih’s expertise is in manufacturing and product development, and he has written or co-authored more than 125 cases and teaching materials in industries ranging from semiconductors, information technology, consumer electronics, aerospace, transportation equipment, manufacturing processes and tools, and intellectual property. His paper, “Restoring American Competitiveness,” co-authored with Gary Pisano, won the 2009 McKinsey Award. His recent book, “Producing Prosperity – Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance,” co-authored with Gary Pisano, has called attention to the link between manufacturing and innovation. He is also the author of “Back Bay Battery,” a best-selling innovation simulation.
Willy Shih: Everybody talks about we are in the age of the knowledge economy and one of the questions I have on that is does it matter if we still make things – hard goods, physical goods, things that you make in a factory. And my belief is first of all, that stuff is still really important because an awful lot of your ability to come up with new ideas and do are indeed to create new products and services also is dependent on your ability to make things. Now another spin on that as well is that in the factory, you know, I think we have a misconception that that isn’t knowledge work and it isn’t about ideas. And if you look over the course of the last 20 or 30 years manufacturing work has actually become knowledge work as well.
In fact, some of the most sophisticated jobs around, the most high tech jobs, are actually in some of these factories that make things like sophisticated machine tools or jet engines or semiconductor products. In fact, if you want to work in a factory like that most of what you do is knowledge work. You have to be able to conduct scientific experiments. You have to be able to develop processes, improve processes. So I think there’s a misconception that the knowledge economy doesn’t also encompass making things. If you look at advanced manufacturing processes today, they actually require a much higher level of skill and sophistication in your workforce than I think many of us realize. Let’s look at the manufacturer of genomics-based drugs, protein-based drugs.
The scale up of making a few milligrams in the lab to producing a one year supply for the world’s population is a very difficult problem. That requires sophistication in your workforce. It’s the commercialization of those types of drugs, the scale up, the production. Those require sophisticated scientific understanding. A lot of other types of production work require the use of advanced tools. If you go into a factory today you’ll see workers who have to use computer skills. You’ll see people who do scientific experiments on production lines to improve the performance of their processes. That type of work is really knowledge work. It’s not our conventional view of what goes on inside a factory.
Now what that means is that preparing our young people – preparing our workforce for these types of jobs is a very different task from what it was in the past. The bar is much higher. It used to be that manufacturing was a path to the middle class for those who didn’t have as much education. I think those days are gone. Today to work in the factory you need to get a good education.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd
There’s a misconception that the knowledge economy doesn’t also encompass making things.
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