Community Conversation: Manufacturing

People with interest in manufacturing have building confidence that they've reshaped their businesses to weather economic doldrums and grow again as the economy improves.

Chicago's interconnected manufacturing base has endured economic threats because it has invested in foreign markets and created new products, said many of the guests at this week's Trib Nation community conversation lunch on the subject.


Among the intangibles favoring Chicago is an abundance of engineering schools, they said.  Among the things manufacturers need? Skilled workers. Specifically, a couple of attendees mentioned the importance of a healthy supply of good welders.

Things aren't perfect -- in fact, guests at Tuesday's community conversation on manufacturing reported businesses down 40 to 60 percent -- but Chicago shouldn't be counted out, either, they said.


Tuesday's conversation was engrossing, astute and surprising, bringing together Chicago manufacturers, the educators, entrepreneurs and businesses that rely on them, and several of the Chicago Tribune journalists that cover them.

It was also timely. Naturally, our newsroom community conversations are built around timely news topics -- we invite a dozen or so thought leaders and connectors from the community and an equal number of Tribune journalists to talk shop and brainstorm about current topics. But this one also came a day after Rahm Emanuel highlighted the need for a better-prepared workforce in his mayoral inauguration speech:

"No great city can thrive by shrinking. The best way to keep people from leaving is to attract the jobs that give them a good reason to stay," Emanuel said. "The jobs of tomorrow will go to those cities that produce the workforce of tomorrow."

One bellweather for the future of manufacturing is its supply of mid-career engineers, said Piotr Galitzine of TMK IPSCO.


That's just what Greg Elliott of Navistar suggested when he mentioned his company moving its engineering center from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Lisle, Ill. They were following the engineers, he said.

And by extension, engineering schools, which include engineering programs at IIT, DePaul and the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Bruce Liiamatainen of A. Finkl & Sons Steel, whose company makes the steel that makes the molds that other manufacturers use for their own product lines.

Among Finkl's customers were many of the companies in the room -- including Navistar, Caterpillar and Brunswick, each of which in one way or another said they'd weathered recent economic storms because of new ideas about who and where their customers were.

That's been essential for Tenneco, which makes parts for the automotive industry all over the world, said COO Hari Nair. Business fell off as much as 40 percent; global markets helped save them. So has "managing through it." The representative from Brunswick Corp. nodded.

Brunswick, the manufacturer of boats and marine engines, has navigated similar straits, said Daniel Kubera. U.S. boatmakers had made 300,000 boats a year a decade ago -- and then 139,000 boats last year. Brunswick reacted by combining production of several boat brands, as well as by changing who they thought of us a customer.

I'm oversimplifying, but in general, it used to be dealers. Increasingly, it also includes individual buyers.

[Note from James: An earlier copy of those boat-making paragraphs contained some errors. What you see now reflects the corrected information.]

While new ideas have been essential, Technori blogger Seth Kravitz pointed to one key obstacle: Connecting big manufacturers in the Chicago area with local entrepreneurs eager to chart new courses into the future.


One of the people with ideas was Zach Kaplan of Inventables, whose company sells the technologies that could create new products and manufacturing processes. Among them are magnetic putty, suction cup tape and hand-moldable plastic. He brought a new part mold with him, made in a simple new fashion you could conceivably reproduce in an office.

Such simplified processes likely are a facet of future industry, said Rabiah Mayas of the Museum of Science and Industry. Even 7-year-olds are manufacturing prototypes of their ideas at the museum's Fab Lab -- Fabrication Laboratory -- she said.

Down the line, vocational educators like Diana Peters of Symbol Job Training and human resources executives like Katie Lawler of GATX said high-level skilled labor was in demand -- and a place where gaps remain.

Meanwhile, adults in Chicago are showing ever more interest in science and technology, fearing the United States could lag behind other world leaders, said Monica Metzler of the Illinois Science Council.

One thing that struck her after attending Tuesday's Trib Nation community conversation lunch? The sheer amount of know-how enjoyed by manufacturers in and around Chicago.

It's been tough, manufacturers told us. But there are signs of hope.

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