Tuesday, March 31, 2009

[blog post from NewarkAdvocate.com]

Manufacturing in Ohio


I'm about to fling unsupported mullings about with abandon, so don't say you haven't been warned.

There's been an odd little subtext both here in the blog post lineup at NewarkAdvocate.com and in general discussions around Ohio, saying -- and i paraphrase, perhaps unfairly -- that the era of manufacturing in Ohio is largely over, and that we should get over it, and look to more high tech, third frontier, biotech kind of economic engines.

Everyone seems to agree, and i know of no good reason to argue, that service industries are largely maxed out, as far as jobs and opportunties. You can't really count on generating many long term, family supporting jobs out of service industry work (a waitress can get some raises and up her income a bit, but there's a pretty hard ceiling unless she saves enough tips to buy her own small restaurant and go entrepreneurial).

The travel and tourism industry wisely points out that their field is at least one kind of job that can't be outsourced -- you can't send those jobs overseas. True enough, and local direct services whether food service, health care, or custom retail tend to stay put, although you might be surprised by how much unseen backroom work can be sent to Bangalore (like the Orange County Register newspaper sending copy editor work to India, no joke).

But i'm curious about manufacturing, the basic task of taking raw materials and doing some of the core steps of turning those farmed and mined and mixed substances into finished or near-finished product. For the period after the Civil War until the 1950s, Ohio was a dominant player in manufacturing, building stoves in Newark and aluminum spars in Heath and engine covers in Hebron, et cetera around the state. Dayton made cash registers and adding machines and airplanes, Youngstown made steel to order, and Toledo made scales (thank you, John Denver).

I'll grant you that the sources of steel making are shifting away from Minnesota taconite, Pennsylvania oil, and West Virginia coal and coke, with us as the hot intersection of all that raw material. We're still at a key distribution node, logistically speaking, in relation to the entire Eastern Seaboard as Las Vegas is for the West Coast, and that gets us pear packing and glass panel shaping and rolling assembly line making in Hebron. We're still not that far from the roots of innovation with Games Slayter at Owens-Toledo for fiberglas, and John Weaver's Fyrepel Products and Tectum Panels, or Ev Reese and the beginnings of the national bank card system.

So what i'm wondering about is whether or not we're still dreaming big. Dave Longaberger was onto something, but i fear many feel like they got their civic fingers burnt because the goose didn't lay enough golden eggs. This is a good area to put stuff together that takes some willingness to be cleverly flexible and change over assembly lines in response to market conditions, now in the internet era even more than before Dave died in 1999. Here on the edge of Appalachia, we still have a fairly smart workforce that also prefers some physical labor mixed in with their cogitation, and isn't afraid of getting a bit dirty while calculating machining tolerances; we have access to an urban quality of life for knowledge workers, but also a rural quality that is attractive to those who aren't looking for the 11 pm sushi bar kind of neighborhood to live in, let alone to raise their kids.

And we still have much in the way of natural gas and even some nearby oil, coal still coming out of the hills to our south and east, and the locational leverage to pull materials together and assemble stuff like heavy industrial equipment and motorized gear, whether hybrid or infernal combustion. We won't be making from scratch much in the way of low cost, disposable consumer product, but we might up our game in packaging and distributing that stuff after it gets this far around the world from Asia, and there's stuff like transmissions and tower framing and table shakers and trackhoes that we oughta still be able to put together and stand behind right here.

There's nothing wrong with biotech and nanotech and alt-tech, but are we chasing the last craze? Is it time to be a bit contrarian, and go back to the future, and chase Kettering and Patterson and Wright and Rockefeller Sr. and Firestone, and maybe even Henry Ford? What would third generation heavy industry look like, and wouldn't it fit really well into Ohio 2010?

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