Innovation distinguishes a leader from a follower, but can everyone be a leader in the plastics manufacturing world?
At the recent Association of Rotational Molders International annual meeting and Rotoplas show, consultants, educators and molders focused on the reluctance of U.S. rotomolders to adopt new technology. The meeting and exposition were held concurrently Oct. 21-23 in Rosemont, Ill.
Single-shot foaming, internal cooling, and direct temperature control have been available for years but have not made their way to factory floors in the U.S., consultant Paul Nugent said. ``I don't know if it is fear fear of technology and new ideas or people just don't think it's necessary.''
Take the fully automated Leonardo rotational molding machine that minimizes the need for operating labor. Five years after the machine's launch in 2003, only four of them have been installed in the U.S. vs. 13 in Italy, seven in France and six in the United Kingdom.
That could be interpreted as reluctance to ``change'' America's hottest buzzword. But I also see it as a low-risk-taking, conservative management philosophy. A good manufacturer shouldn't get ahead of its end markets, especially during economic turmoil.
While many manufacturers believe innovation will get us out of the recession, I beg to differ. The current economic woes are not a result of the lack of innovation. On the contrary, the ``much too innovative'' repackaging of financial derivatives in a laissez-faire environment was a major cause of the U.S. credit crisis.
When the financial bubble burst, it reinforced my belief that manufacturing creates real value and is extremely important for a healthy economy. The U.S. has developed an overwhelming dependency on the service sector. About 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 2006 was from services, with real estate and financial services on top. Manufacturing only accounted for 12 percent of the GDP.
As the real estate and financial industries will be down for awhile and the cascading effects are hurting other service sectors such as retail and restaurants, manufacturing should play a greater role as the cornerstone of the economy.
Based on what I heard from molders and suppliers at ARM's workshops, it's clear companies are finding ways that can help them weather the storm. Discussions covered topics like just-in-time inventory, cost reduction and continuous improvement the business practices that can give plants a comparative advantage.
There are leaders and followers in every market. The very innovative and avant-garde ones are at the top of the pyramid. While we hail groundbreaking innovations and the early adopters, we also should respect and encourage the majority of manufacturers in the middle that don't necessarily use the most cutting-edge technologies but still create solid value by filling market niches, improving products and optimizing efficiency.
Innovation leads to success, so do many other things that happen on the shop floors in the plastics industry every day. That gives us confidence for reviving U.S. manufacturing.
Nina Ying Sun is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News assistant managing editor.