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What's the Toughest Challenge of the Year?

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Beth Stackpole
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In every challenge is opportunity
Beth Stackpole   12/9/2011 6:56:03 AM
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Like your list of the toughest challenges, Alex. In particular, I think energy efficiency and the digital factory ones present the greatest opportunity, if engineering organizations can work through the host of process problems and technical kinks that will likely erect barriers to adoption. I'm not sure I'd agree that the trend around lower cost 3D printing presents a challenge--I would position that more as a great opportunity that burst out of the gates this last year.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: In every challenge is opportunity
Alexander Wolfe   12/9/2011 10:09:52 AM
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Thanks, Beth. I think what we see clearly here is that technologies with the biggest economic impetus behind them are the ones which catch fire most quickly. So 3D printing, which as you mention is not so much a challenge as a reality, is almost mainstream at this point, because it's gotten so cheap and accessible.  Energy harvesting is sparking interest because of the obvious savings on electricity costs, which are rising rapidly, as well as because harvesting is one way to ensure access to power.

Ann R. Thryft
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Knowing more about more
Ann R. Thryft   12/9/2011 1:01:13 PM
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Thanks for a funny column full of good points. Having just written four "top such and such" articles for the first time, I can see how tough it is to pick the top 5 this or the most important 10 that. I think the macro-level takeaway I got here was that products, systems and jobs are all getting more integrated and more multi-disciplinary and we all have to know more about more stuff. Tiring, indeed. But also exciting.


Jennifer Campbell
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Re: Knowing more about more
Jennifer Campbell   12/9/2011 1:35:28 PM
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I have to echo Alex's enthusiam surrounding the employment issue he talks about here. It is definitely encouraging to see companies hiring "older" workers. While younger engineers may work for less money (and I can see where that may be more attractive to some employers), it has been my experience in every job I've ever had, that you learn by doing and by taking after the more seasoned employees. These "older" engineers are clearly assets and should be treated as such.

Rob Spiegel
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New wine, new bottles
Rob Spiegel   12/9/2011 4:00:12 PM
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Nice piece, Alex,

As for the digital factory, I think your last two points are the critical ones. High-value vendors are certainly selling upper-end technology, but mostly it's for the purpose of helping manufacturers increase productivity from the prototype to the customers dock. These are times when manufacturers can't spend money that doesn't translate almost immediately into some type of ROI. So there isn’t going to be much technology for the sake of technology like the late 1990s. I guess that makes your third point the strongest --  method of helping manufacturers speed up the prototyping through production processes.

 

Charles Murray
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U.S. talent
Charles Murray   12/9/2011 6:29:53 PM
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Good points, all. I particulatly agree, Alex, with your point about applauding companies like Siemens, who've gone out of their way to hire U.S. engineers. From the comments I've read over the past six months, I've become convinced that there's a lot of U.S.-based talent that can't find engineering work, and I suspect it's because of immigration acts that enable companies to employ foreign engineers in specialty situations. A lot of other engineering employers out there need to follow Siemens' lead.  

naperlou
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Re: U.S. talent
naperlou   12/31/2011 1:09:14 PM
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Charles, your point is well taken.  I think the employment and underemployment issue is a result of imigration policy.  I did some research on H1B visa applications a few years back.  I was about to do a contract for an Indian software services firm.  What I found was dissiapointsing in the extreme.  I looked specifically at Microsoft.  They were the largest user of H1B visas that year.  None of the jobs I saw were either critical skills or in short supply in the USA.  In fact, I found some applicaitons for purchasing agents.  The other issue we need to look at is underemployment of engineers in the US.  This is especially true of older engineers who have to retire early, or who loose jobs prior to retirement.  A study that I saw many years ago, while I was a manager at General Electric, showed that patent production was about as high at the later stage of a career as at the begining.  The study showed that mid-career people are more worried about position and advancement, perhaps family, than being creative.  Thus, the trend toward early retirements has many undesireable consequences.  First,our funding assumptions for retirement do not take into account the longevity.  Second, we throw away a large talent pool at a time when they would be even more productive. 

Finally, one interesting data point that might bring a little cheer to the discussion.  One large company I talked to that has labs all over the world indicated that they have tended to bring the "creative" work back to the USA.  What they find is that the pay differential is narrowing and when there is not that inducement to move the work overseas, they get better results here. 

Charles Murray
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Re: U.S. talent
Charles Murray   1/5/2012 10:38:04 PM
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Good points, Naperlou. I hope you're right that they get better results here. I do wonder about this, though, as I read our articles about the shortage of high school kids willing to pursue engineering paths. If our immigration policies continue to allow companies like Microsoft to bring in loads of non-critical people with H1B visas, why are we sounding the alarm at our engineering schools? If we load up our engineering schools under current immigration policies, will our U.S.-educated engineering students be able to get jobs?

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: U.S. talent
Ann R. Thryft   1/9/2012 2:48:10 PM
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I think naperlou brings up a good point, which is the trend, to whatever extent it's really going on, that's been shifting jobs back to the US, at one time called "onshoring" or "homeshoring" or variations thereof. Although there's been quite a lot of press about it on and off for several years. I don't know how real it is. But over time, I'd guess that the narrowing pay gap, which is a real phenomenon, would be helping to continue it and perhaps even speed it up.


Greg Stirling
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What's the Toughest Challenge of the Year?
Greg Stirling   12/9/2011 10:30:16 PM
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Those are all good points Alex,  I think our highest priorities are employment and a stable economy.  Then producing more efficient and renewable power.  Then applying that to electric vehicles.

A breakthrough in stem cell research would also be a very welcome sight... bring it on.

Tim
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Tough challenge
Tim   12/11/2011 6:52:30 AM
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I agree with the tough challenges coming up in 2012.  If 2011 is an example, companies with high involvement in the production of energy efficient machines will be poised for growth in 2012.  How they deal with this growth will show what kind of company they are.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Tough challenge
Alexander Wolfe   12/12/2011 3:04:27 PM
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That's a timely comment, Tim. We have a Design News Radio show this Wednesday, Dec. 14, and 2pm EST, where we will talk with Siemens about energy efficient motors and drives. You can go here to register.

Tool_maker
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Gored Ox
Tool_maker   12/12/2011 4:12:36 PM
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Alex you have written an excellent article, with many salient comments, however I would like to add one. Unless we are able to restore manufacturing jobs to the US, all of the other things are irrelevant. 

In 1990 I was employed by a subsidiary of a Fortune 100 corporation. They were continually expanding, but never with brick and mortar. Only acqusition, followed by consolidation, plant closing and layoff. They sent thousands of jobs to Mexico and seemed to take a particular delight in eliminating union jobs. In a rash moment of foolishness I had the gall to question one of the engineers from corporate headquarters about the wisdom of this. (Titles were very big and important in this place, but I do not remember his title, but he was a much higher pay grade than me.)

At the time I was told there were tax advantages and even though the quality was less and the deliveries poor that would all pick up with experience, because these were unskilled work. When I asked if he was fearful of engineering functions following the production he laughed and said that could never happen. Today we know better.

I do not know how to reverse the trend, but as I said at the outset, without the return of manufacturing, nothing else will matter.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Gored Ox
Alexander Wolfe   12/12/2011 4:21:04 PM
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Good comment, Tool_maker. One thing I'll tell you which I find interesting is that most executives in our industy with whom I've talked WANT to invest in U.S. manufacturing and infrastructure. See this article from July: "Will US Manufacturing Rebound Continue?" I think there is a very slow renaissance/reinvestment in the U.S., which perhaps we won't see until we have the benefit of a little more hindsight.  At the same time, there's definitely a corporate reluctance to invest heavily, which stems from uncertainty about the economy.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Gored Ox
Ann R. Thryft   12/14/2011 12:35:28 PM
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Alex, that's a very heartening article. And it reminds me of the supposed onshoring trend of a few years back for keeping manufacturing jobs here instead of sending them offshore, although I don't think that was in engineering. 

If so many executives want to hire American, what's preventing them from doing so?


Tool_maker
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Re: Gored Ox
Tool_maker   12/16/2011 1:06:23 PM
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Ann, there is no incentive to hire or build domestic until we, as consumers demand it. In less than 3 weeks we will no longer have the ability to buy 100 watt incandecsant lights. Argue which ever way you want about the wisdom or folly of the ban, have you seen one of those curly Q's made anywhere other than China? Have you heard a hue and cry from consumers demanding US curly Q's? I'll wager the answer is no. Instead we get ridiculous arguements about what light is better for saving polar bears. Our kids come home crying because their teacher has told them the whole planet is going to die if we do not use the right bulb, while we sit silently by and watch an entire industry disappear.

What CEO in his right mind would stand in front of a board of directors and demand that they continue to produce something that is the subject of mob hysteria? So they wring their hands while sending product lines overseas while some where a collection of tree huggers can congratulate themselves on doing their part in saving mother earth. This same mentality is happening over and over. Government mandate interfers so dramatically with industry that we have almost forgotten when things happened because they were a good idea, not some nebulous pipe dream of a political group. Do you remember when a business had to get bank financing rather than government grants? If I sound cynical it is because I am.

No I do not want to return to high sulphur coal or other such things, so please do not throw that at me. I just want people to demand quality goods made in the USA so my kids will have a chance at my life.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Gored Ox
Beth Stackpole   12/30/2011 8:11:18 AM
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I agree that the American public should demand more domestically-built products. But perhaps it's not such a black and white tradeoff between pushing for environmentally-friendly products and policies and promoting products designed and manufactured in the good old USA.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Gored Ox
Rob Spiegel   12/30/2011 11:38:29 AM
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Yes, it's not black and what at all, Beth. It's hard to tell what an American product is these days. Japanese car makers are all over the South, employing American workers. Their shares are scattered through American 401K plans. Meanwhile, American consumer electronics companies are manufacturing their goods in Asia and employing fewer and fewer American workers. At this point, Toyota may be more American than Motorola.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Gored Ox
Beth Stackpole   12/30/2011 12:13:12 PM
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In light of globalization, it's like rare than any one particular product can tout all made in the USA or all made in any particular region. Dispersed supply chains mean components are sourced from all over and just because something is assembled on US soil doesn't mean it's all American-made product.

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