By Diane M. Calabrese / Published February 2019
Builders all, whatever we are doing—assembling a pressure washer, kneading dough, setting lobster traps, rearing toddlers—we are turning what is into what can be. Different activities, same purpose: living and changing.
Although each of us sees the world from a slightly different vantage, the more we learn about another’s perspective, the more things we identify that we have in common. For instance, within our industry distributors and contractors have ideas about the focus and goals of manufacturers, but how accurate are their perceptions?
There may be some “misconceptions that persist” about the motivation of manufacturers, says Scott Harmsen, vice president of Hydro-Chem Systems Inc. in Caledonia, MI., but he sees generally good understanding of the role of manufacturers.
“I believe by and large most manufacturers are working hard to develop and build products that people need, want, and desire,” explains Harmsen. “The marketplace today has become information driven, with customers becoming much more knowledgeable.”
The knowledge customers bring to a purchase is an opportunity for manufacturers. “It is much easier now for manufacturers to tap into the customer’s experience through reviews, social media, blogs, and online comments,” says Harmsen.
Serving customers is what motivates manufacturers. “We look to bring value to their lives and businesses with our products because we understand that our success can only come through theirs,” says Harmsen.
“Today’s information age allows us to have a much stronger pulse on the challenges and obstacles that our customers are facing, which then ultimately guides the products we innovate and manufacture,” says Harmsen. Always interested in providing customers with the products and solutions they seek, manufacturers can now use interactions on social media in their effort to achieve that end.
Inspiration for innovating is something manufacturers find in many ways. “For us it comes through direct feedback from the customer,” says Harmsen. “Being present on social media in industry forums and social media groups and pages is a great way to give the customer a platform to share what is working and what is not working for them in their businesses.”
Social media feedback from customers leads to a genuine give and take, explains Harmsen, in “not using this platform to sell products but just to let them know we are a resource for them, and they for us. It’s a place to bounce ideas off others, share obstacles, seek solutions to issues, and learn best practices. The information gained as to what the industry is looking for is crucial to be a successful manufacturer in today’s information age.”
The understanding of customer needs that manufacturers bring to their work is often fortified by experience. Harmsen’s company has been in operation for 47 years. Its niche is fleet washing equipment, products, and processes.
“Starting out as a company who actually performed the fleet washing service, we have an experience level and knowledge of our customers’ day-to-day operations,” says Harmsen. “When they have an issue, we can identify with it—and when a product isn’t performing as it should, we know why. We also understand challenges in their business at a level that goes deeper than just from a conceptual standpoint.”
Knowing what it’s like to rely on a product gives a manufacturer the ability to better meet customers’ needs. “I see manufacturers design products that attempt to solve issues the customer doesn’t really have while missing the ones they do,” says Harmsen.
A manufacturing setting is a great place to be for a number of reasons, says Harmsen. “It provides the opportunity to bring meaningful value to our industry and customers. We want to truly impact their businesses and their lives in a positive way. We seek to wow our customers and manufacture products that achieve. That brings a sense of purpose in our careers.”
The “change” that happens in the manufacturing sector makes it a fascinating environment, says Jimmy Welch with American Pressure Inc. in Robbinsdale, MN. He sees a future for the industry in which new products will bring together safety and quality as a matter of course.
“I have been fortunate to work in all phases of the industry, from component supplier to manufacturing to distribution and service,” says Welch. “This has allowed me to see many cleaning applications all around the world and find real solutions. We have a lot of really talented people in all phases. I just recently left manufacturing to go back to the distribution side.”
The seamless melding of safety and quality presents challenges for manufacturers. Certifying machines and parts is not a cost-free endeavor.
“The pressure washer manufacturer’s desire is to build a product range that is safe—meets industry safety standards, meets the application of the end user, and is reliable and cost effective,” says Welch. It’s part of the manufacturer’s role he wishes was fully understood.
“Designing a safe product that is third-party certified is very costly, especially considering the different machine variations and options which must also be taken into consideration when doing the certification process. When changes occur, the files must be updated, which adds additional cost,” says Welch. “When manufacturers are asked to make product changes to existing certified products, then the decision has to be made to incur the additional cost of certification, or just sell a non-certified product.”
Many factors, not just design changes, add to a manufacturer’s costs. “As consolidation continues, manufacturers are being challenged to improve efficiencies and desire a production run of consistent product models to be efficient,” says Welch. “Manufacturers are also constantly looking for savings, whether in components or processes.”
How manufacturers approach meeting the objective of improved efficiencies deserves more discussion, says Welch. (See the last section for more on the topic.)
Overstating the ingenuity of design teams is not possible. “Manufacturers with innovative engineering teams constantly evaluate the substrate to be cleaned and determine the proper impact—flow, pressure, distance, and time, which can lead to innovation in nozzle design,” says Welch.
“We all know how the rotating nozzle and flat surface cleaner revolutionized our industry, increasing the cleaning efficiency,” says Welch. “Cost savings for the end user” was the corresponding result.
The inventiveness of manufacturers derives from many sources. Distributors asking manufacturers about changes, such as flow and pressure, which might be possible in a standard product to meet a particular requirement are one source, says Welch.
Manufacturers also receive questions about scaling down machines. “In some cases, a larger machine—a little more costly—tuned down to meet the application is the best choice, but due to cost competitiveness in the market, it is not chosen…,” says Welch. And as a result, the manufacturer develops a different model to meet the application.
“Safety as well as performance standards also play a role in innovation,” says Welch. So, too, do efficiencies that result in cost savings for customer and manufacturer.
“Product reduction” is another element in the efficiency sphere that concerns manufacturers, says Welch. It’s the concept of selling what can be produced quickly and effectively at a lower cost.
The product reduction Welch cites has the attention of manufacturers across industries. In October 2018, a report from a federal committee established to assess manufacturing in the United States was published. (Read the entire report, “Strategy for American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing” at the Manufacturing.gov website at www.manufacturing.gov/news/announcements/2018/10/strategy-american-leadership-advanced-manufacturing.
Manufacturing jobs still account for 8.5 percent of the U.S. workforce. But the loss of manufacturers—and related jobs—at the end of the 20th century was staggering. Loss occurred for many reasons, including lower labor costs and fewer regulations elsewhere. But loss also happened because other nations moved more quickly toward gaining efficiency through the adoption of technology at every level from robotic controls to integrated management processes.
The authors of the Strategy report recommend speedy movement toward new manufacturing technologies, a goal that would be met by focusing on several objectives. Objectives include exploiting intelligent manufacturing systems, ensuring that strong grounding in science and math is part of education, and promoting links between companies of all sizes.
Candid in its appraisal of the status of manufacturing in the United States, the report cites the 2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index that puts our nation 11th (falling from 9th) in a global index of innovation. Many factors account for the drop.
An important factor is the unreliability and unpredictability of intellectual property rights. Protecting innovation of U.S. companies is a must, according to the report.
Efficiency is a natural outcome of advanced manufacturing. Resources are exploited in the most conservative way possible, including being reused. (For example, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding demonstration projects in reclamation of rare earth elements from coal ash—forward looking in every way.)
Process improvements also reduce need for workers. But there’s so much to be done—from developing technologies for reclaiming and reusing (batteries are really piling up), to cleaning as well as desalinating water, to retrofitting (in lieu of replacing pipes and mains). Then, there is power (cost-effective and sustainable) and space exploration.
No shortage of potential for progress…more doers always needed.