A Publication of WTVP

It’s no secret that the national manufacturing sector has been in decline for decades. “Can the future be built in America?” asked BusinessWeek last September, answering this question with a decided “maybe.” While there are many new opportunities emerging in manufacturing—from fuel cells to solar panels to razor-thin, flexible TV screens—it’s not clear that the country is primed to capitalize on them.

“Two decades of unconstrained outsourcing to Asia have hollowed out much of America’s base of suppliers, factory managers and skilled technicians,” says the article, while federal tax policy, high labor costs and a scarcity of funding opportunities are barriers that, in many cases, continue to make offshoring attractive.

And yet, the United States remains the world’s largest manufacturing economy. U.S. manufacturers are the most productive workers in the world, doing more with less and producing goods of ever-higher quality. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, there is increasing recognition of the importance of manufacturing to the country’s future—the idea that “we need to make stuff again” and not rely on a slippery slope of abstract financial speculation for sustained economic growth.

For many local companies, the current downturn “seems to have served as a wake-up call,” notes IMEC’s Tucker Kennedy. No longer captive to a handful of major customers, small manufacturers are exploring and entering new markets. They are embracing change, as they must, diversifying across product lines and geographic boundaries.

Innovative “teaming” arrangements are allowing bands of small manufacturers to compete for government contracts that are usually out of their reach. At least one local manufacturer is on the verge of a significant capital investment that would allow the company to create specialty parts for the wind turbine industry.

The construction of a new manufacturing plant in Canton is expected to bring 300 jobs to the area when it hits capacity. The Cook Canton facility will manufacture medical devices—an emerging market that is poised for explosive growth as the demand for innovative healthcare technologies continues to skyrocket.

The recession has hit manufacturing hard—with more than 50,000 industrial jobs lost across the state of Illinois in 2009 alone—but the trend line has been clear for some time. Over the last decade, the state lost more than 300,000 jobs in manufacturing. The “good ol’ days” of domestic manufacturing have given way to a new era of global competition, but that hardly means the death knell for the industry.

The scope of the challenge is vast, but as Kennedy notes, “The good news is that manufacturers are up to this challenge.” Central Illinois was built on a proud foundation of manufacturing, and manufacturing will remain essential to our success moving forward. iBi