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A Publication of WTVP

Ten years ago this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded a federal grant to Bradley University to create the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC) and integrate three regional manufacturing assistance groups into a single statewide organization. Today, a team of 30 specialists based out of 11 field offices statewide provides manufacturers with handson assistance to be more productive and competitive. In the last decade, IMEC has assisted nearly 2,000 Illinois manufacturers. These companies reported that the $25.8 million they’ve invested in IMEC’s services returned nearly $3 billion in sales, cost savings, and productivity gains.

IMEC’s not-for-profit corporation is led by a 15-member board of directors comprised entirely of the leaders of manufacturing companies. Several local manufacturing leaders have been instrumental in charting the progress IMEC has made during the last decade, including current board directors Reg Smidt (Iron-AWay), James Tarabori (Caterpillar), and Mary Cay Westphal (Shamrock Plastics).

While much has changed within the manufacturing industry during the 10 years since IMEC’s inception, some things remain the same. I thought it would be interesting to pick a few key local manufacturing-related issues for a retrospective: then (1996) and now (2006).

Then: Manufacturers were reaping the benefits of an industrial resurgence. Many, however, were simply unprepared or unwilling to embrace the rapid influx of international sourcing and the globalization of the manufacturing sector.
Now: Domestic manufacturers now go head-to-head with lowcost international concerns, many of whom operate in state-of-the art facilities funded by their governments. Sophisticated international competition has minimized vendor selection based on product or service quality alone. Instead, customers now require their vendors to dramatically increase the value proposition wrapped around their core product or service.

Then: Major OEMs implemented their own supplier certification programs.
Now: Most OEMs require suppliers to be compliant with recognized quality standards such as ISO 9001:2000, TS 16949, or AS 9100.

Then: The concept of Lean Manufacturing was beginning to emerge as a viable approach to competing.
Now: Efficient production depends on having access to accurate data and as a result, many factory workers use their heads as much as their hands. Everything from order input, to inventory control, to production planning, to control of the production machinery, to shipping and invoicing and financial record keeping is driven by available information. Many more companies are embracing Lean Manufacturing, perhaps the most effective set of process improvement techniques that has been introduced to U.S. manufacturers. Lean enables manufacturers to produce to actual demand rather than forecasts, reducing inventory costs and allowing production to flow more efficiently at the pull of the customer’s order.

Then: Manufacturers faced a shortage of skilled workers.
Now: Manufacturers continue to face a skills shortage; however, the dramatic productivity improvements that are achieved when a company implements a continuous improvement program also help companies maintain and even expand the capacity of their existing work force. This will be increasingly important as a large percentage of manufacturing employees approach retirement and the growth rate of qualified labor supply slows. IBI

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