Manufacturing, 3-D Printing and the Future of "Making Stuff"
Wisconsin’s rich manufacturing tradition faces challenges, but also opportunities, for the future
Manufacturing has hit some rough patches over the past few decades. From 1990 to 2000, things were looking good: Wisconsin added more than 70,000 manufacturing jobs. But the approach of Y2K ignited fears beyond date-confused computers—it marked a sharp downturn for U.S. manufacturing, especially in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin. From 2000 to 2004, we lost 90,000 manufacturing jobs in this state alone, but the numbers held steady from 2004 to 2008. Then the recession hit and things really went south. But starting about three years ago, some of these jobs started to come back from overseas, spurred by economic incentives and growing support for American products that reflect high quality over high volume. There’s even been talk of the manufacturing industry leading U.S. economic recovery, but some analysts remain skeptical. The return of manufacturing jobs stateside met a blend of challenges and opportunities: A skills gap between available industry jobs and properly-trained workers to fill them hampers progress, but advancements in technology like computer numerical control, or CNC, systems and 3-D printing create new pathways to innovation. Even in Madison, a city often seen as more of an academia than industry hub, there are signs of a manufacturing renaissance.
DATA: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. All numbers in thousands.
For a computer-controlled machine tool operator in metals or plastic:
$17.70: average hourly wage
$36,810: average annual wage
2: Wisconsin’s rank for concentration of computer-controlled machine tool operator in metals or plastic.
Who's the New Kid?
Hark! A new type of manufacturing is here: 3-D printing. The technology of 3-D printing has been around for twenty-plus years, but has only recently proliferated into the hobbyist sphere. Unlike traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, 3-D printing is based on the principle of addition. All you need is a hunk of material (like plastic) and a digital schematic for the small object you wish to create. Then you program that schematic into the printer, press play and watch the object take shape—layer by layer—before your eyes. “Three or four years ago, if you wanted to make a little widget, you had to have a whole factory and assembly line … to transform the design on your napkin into a thing in your hand,” says Chris Meyer, founder of the collaborative workspace Sector67, which owns several 3-D printers. “The progression is just transformative.” But worry not, traditionalists: “We can get very excited about additive manufacturing,” says Meyer, “but subtractive manufacturing is here to stay.”
We talked with one Madison manufacturer on the changes he’s witnessed in the industry over the past twenty-five years
Founder, Dickinson Manufacturing Solutions
Niche: Computer numerical control (CNC) machine shop
What has changed in manufacturing since you entered the industry?
My background is in machining before CNC machines were in the picture. In the 1980s, there were very few CNC machines, mostly all were manual, and the machining was done by very highly skilled tool and die makers. Then the computers took over, and it primarily left those guys behind. You had to adapt new types of machining or get out of the trade. Now it’s hard to find a machine shop that doesn’t have CNC.
What kind of manufacturing work do you do?
We find our niche in is the quick-turn, high-value products that are research and development-based. The biotech industry has been big for us. We’ve done work for the university—quite a bit of work for the Engine Research Center. Or a spinoff of UW will start a project and they’ll grow a small business … and we’ll do some work for them. Also with Sub-Zero/Wolf.
How did the recession impact your business?
It was tough to make it through 2009. Companies cut their orders way back from one or two hundred products to twenty. They didn’t need volume on their shelves, but they did want to go on with their new projects, so custom prototyping actually picked up.
What has been your experience with hiring new, young talent?
I don’t hire in people who are skilled. We do [training] in-house. I just believe that it’s all about attitude, not all about skill sets; skill sets can be learned. I came from [previous jobs] that when training was done internally, it was a better company.
Grace Edquist is associate/web editor of Madison Magazine.