Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Chris Downing arranged for me to speak at Georgia Manufacturing Appreciation Week last week. So, to prepare, I dug into the state of the manufacturing industry, locally and worldwide. I reminded myself of a few things, and learned a few others.

Manufacturing has gone through some wrenching changes in the last couple of decades — mostly because of the rise of China — but it’s still a cornerstone of the American economy. And many different groups in EI2, not just MEP, work with manufacturers in Georgia and beyond.

Last year’s manufacturing survey, which we conducted in cooperation with HA&W and Kennesaw State, collected data from nearly 500 manufacturers in Georgia. We found that those companies competing on the basis of innovation in new or technologically improved products are more than twice as profitable as firms competing on the basis of low price. It’s probably overstating the case to say “Innovate or die!” — but it’s fair to say “Innovate or stagnate!”

Georgia Tech has an important role to play in assisting manufacturing industries in Georgia. Look at the picture above. As I never tire of telling people, when Georgia Tech was founded in 1885, we only had two buildings. One, inevitably, was for classrooms. The second wasn’t a library, or research laboratories, or even a gymnasium. It was a machine shop. We have a long history of working very closely with industry!

The industries have changed a bit since 1885, when “high tech” meant railroads and cotton mills. Over a century later, it’s interesting to look around campus and see the number of innovative manufacturing technologies being developed at Georgia Tech. An incomplete list:

  • Laser-assisted machining
  • Real-time wireless sensors
  • Improved modeling and simulation
  • Process control systems
  • Machine vision
  • Autonomous robots
  • Rapid prototyping
  • 3-D printing (“additive manufacturing”)
  • Nanotechnology/molecular-scale structures
  • Biological manufacturing
  • Graphene
  • Sustainable practices, including alt-energy
  • Advanced logistics

And that’s not to mention our work with traditional Georgia industries like poultry and forest products.

And we address all points in the value creation chain. In case you’re not tired of hearing about Suniva yet — a Georgia Tech professor in electrical engineering spent 30 years on fundamental research into how to make more efficient solar cells. EI2, through VentureLab, helped create a company to license that technology. We helped identify investment capital and helped recruit a CEO (since professors tend to make lousy CEOs). EI2’s ATDC incubated the company in Technoogy Square as it got organized and prepared to build its first manufacturing facility in Norcross. And EI2 Industry Services helped the company with process control and simulation work as the factory doubled in size the first year.

Now, Suniva has a billion-dollar backlog of orders — yes “billion” with a “B” — and is exporting solar cells all over the world. They have 190 employees working three shifts in Norcross — good jobs at good wages. And just last month, they were ranked #2 out of 516 cleantech companies by the Wall Street Journal.

That’s what can happen when Georgia Tech engages all its energies to address a manufacturing problem. And EI2 is in the middle of it all.

America is not going to see the return of the highly-paid middle-class assembly line worker. Those jobs have gone overseas and are not coming back. But there’s plenty of demand for high-skill, high-wage jobs based on the manufacturing technologies I listed above. Those jobs don’t need to be in China. In fact, there are good reasons to keep them close to home. And those jobs will transform Georgia’s workforce.

That doesn’t just mean more demand for four-year engineering degrees, although those are critically important. That means more demand for technical two-year degrees from our friends in the Technical College System of Georgia. It means more demand for employer-focused training like QuickStart and ICAPP. It means more demand for lifelong learning through our Professional Master’s and certification programs. And it means more demand for consultative assistance through the sixteen branded programs of EI2.

We’re not building your father’s Oldsmobile anymore. In fact, GM isn’t building Oldsmobiles at all. The world is changing. And the skill sets we bring to our manufacturing clients are more valuable than ever before.

Thanks for all you do, and keep up the great work.