Made in the U.S.A.

We had dinner the other night at a family friends’ house. The kind of good friends who you can talk to about anything and get into the most heated conversations about… anything.

So over arugula pizza and apple martinis (for the parents, not the kids) we fully covered the topic of whether the U.S. is losing its leadership status in creating new ideas to China.

We never agreed on an answer but here’s what I came away with…

We Americans have been outsmarted in how to manufacture things. Yes, we’ve led the world with our ideas for new technologies and products but we haven’t actually been making those products here in the United States. Manufacturing used to involve relatively simple types of equipment and just lots of human labor. But over the past generation, in large part because of all the wonderful computer technology we’ve developed, manufacturing involves creating and using sophisticated computerized equipment. Manufacturing has become… a science of its own.

In fact, a science in which the next new ideas have to be based. How can we invent something new if we now have no idea how to make it? Inventing things in an ivory tower has worked well up until this point but now it takes a solid understanding of how things are actually made and put together.

So how do we begin teaching this science to our students when we don’t even know it ourselves? Simple. We just need to start providing opportunity. We need to… umm… just make some stuff.

This semester I’m supervising a couple “design” courses for mechanical engineering undergraduate students at the University of Virginia. The department of mechanical and aerospace engineering where I still maintain a professorship, recognizes that factory experience is key to the design process. Having the only factory in town, they asked if I would do this.

We meet. I give them a few lectures. But it’s not until we run through the manufacturing process – over and over and over again – and then one more time, that the good ideas start churning.

The U.S. is not doomed. We’ve still got it. We’ve just got to start making it. Here.

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