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How can American manufacturing be reinvented to thrive in an era of globalization?


The Future of American Manufacturing

Your best ideas for the future of manufacturing, as chosen by readers and Slate staff

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A worker demonstrates the installation of a battery pack for a Ford Focus in Wayne, Mich., in December.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

One month ago, Slate launched its Made in America Hive, inviting readers to submit their best ideas for how to improve American manufacturing in a globalized era. We received dozens of ideas, ranging from worldwide unionization to abolishing the minimum wage to revoking child-labor laws.

Voting is now closed for the Hive, and we’ve listed the winners below. The first list consists of the ideas that won the most votes from readers; the second contains Slate staff’s favorite submissions.

Readers’ Picks:

  1. Introducing Manufacturing to the Information Age,” by Kris Chapman (50 votes).
  2. Tax Breaks for Worker Owned Businesses,” by Bob (20 votes).
  3. Workforce Imperative: A  Manufacturing Education Strategy,” by SME (13 votes).
  4. Good Pay and Regulation,” by Just an Idea (12 votes).
  5. New Manufacturing Model: Local, Small, and Automated,” by MrWright85 (11 votes).

A significant group of readers liked ideas that would bring 21st-century technology to U.S. manufacturing. Many also voted for political and economic reforms, such as revising labor laws and environmental regulations. Starting with the most popular idea, here are the reader-selected winners:

1. “Introducing Manufacturing to the Information Age,” by Kris Chapman (50 votes). Chapman believes that manufacturing in the United States has declined because American industry has yet to capitalize on the Internet. Web innovations like cloud computing and data sharing have the potential to dramatically increase manufacturing efficiency, but many U.S. companies have been resistant to updating their information systems.

2. “Tax Breaks for Worker Owned Businesses,” by Bob (20 votes). Worker-owned businesses, Bob believes, are more involved in their communities, more mindful of environmental protections, and more egalitarian in their pay scales. Jobs at worker-owned businesses are much less likely to be outsourced, as employers and employees will both have a major stake in keeping the company stateside. To encourage growth and reward responsible business practices, the U.S. government should give worker-owned businesses—especially manufacturers—significant tax breaks.

3. “Workforce Imperative: A  Manufacturing Education Strategy,” by SME (13 votes). This submission by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers proposes an overhaul of the U.S. education system in an effort to expose more Americans to manufacturing careers. Incorporating manufacturing skills into schools’ curricula could attract more students to careers in industry, rejuvenating the American labor force with young blood and new ideas.

4. “Good Pay and Regulation,” by Just an Idea (12 votes). Arguing against the trend of deregulation, this reader believes we should bolster regulation of manufacturing in order to ensure the quality of American products. U.S. industry will continue to decline unless American manufacturers produce top-notch goods, services, and foods. It will also continue to decline, this reader believes, if we do not increase pay and benefits for American workers. Once manufacturers satisfy strict environmental and safety regulations and pay their workers a living wage, Americans will once again take pride in buying American-made products, and American manufacturing will experience a revival. 

5. “New Manufacturing Model: Local, Small, and Automated,” by MrWright85 (11 votes). This reader believes that the future of manufacturing lies not in large-scale industry but in small, community-oriented plants. He notes that 3-D printing and automation can be done very successfully on a small scale and that the model could be replicated for a diverse array of industries such as toy-making and pastries. Moreover, automated plants—those that use robots in the manufacturing process—could boost production efficiency while creating new jobs for technology-oriented workers.

Slates Picks:

  1. Good Pay and Regulation,” by Just an Idea.
  2. Tax Breaks for Worker Owned Businesses,” by Bob.
  3. Tariffs Tied to Labor Laws,” by Sandy.
  4. Win on Quality,” by Alex Buck.
  5. Reduce Patent Protection,” by an anonymous reader.

Two of our selections overlap with readers’: Bob’s plan for tax breaks for worker-owned businesses and Just an Idea’s proposal for revamping the U.S.’s wage and regulation laws. We also picked a new, comprehensive tariff scheme and new manufacturing protocols to foster innovation and quality. Here are our favorite proposals in order of preference:

1. “Good Pay and Regulation,” by Just an Idea. Among the proposals for dramatic, inventive overhauls of American manufacturing, this submission stands out for simply making good sense. There can be no doubt that U.S. industry needs to be revived for the 21st century, but that cannot be done if workers are struggling to remain above the poverty level. Increasing worker pay, as this reader suggests, will boost happiness, encourage loyalty, and incentivize innovation. Restoring regulation of industries, meanwhile, will ensure that pride in American-made goods is not just patriotic but a smart consumer choice. Goods and foods produced in a wealthy, developed country like the United States should be safe and high-quality. Smart regulation is the only way to ensure that they are.

2. “Tax Breaks for Worker Owned Businesses,” by Bob. When employees own a part of their business, they have reason to take pride in their products; when employers must answer to their own workers, they are more likely to provide good pay and follow regulations. Bob’s suggestion, if implemented, would foster the growth of worker-owned businesses and allow room for growth and invention among small-scale manufacturers. If manufacturing is going to have a future in America, those who do the manufacturing need to be happy with their work.

3. “Tariffs Tied to Labor Laws,” by Sandy. This idea—to increase tariffs on products from countries with human rights abuses and little regulation—is both smart and practical. American manufacturing jobs are being shipped overseas because countries like China can make products cheaply. That cheapness, however, comes at the expensive of shockingly low wages and worker mistreatment. If the United States makes tariff rates roughly proportional to a country’s labor laws, American industries will be protected against competition from countries that abuse their workers, while the government will bring in billions of new tax dollars.

4. “Win on Quality,” by Alex Buck. Many readers believe U.S. manufacturers need to focus on increasing the quality of their products in order to restore pride in American-made goods. This reader eschews patriotism for pragmatism, arguing that it’s actually cheaper in the long run to make high-quality products. Returned products, wasted materials, and dissatisfied customers all drive down profits, but efficient, quality-controlled manufacturing could keep U.S. industries competitive with overseas manufacturers. Creating “Quality Engineering” programs, moreover, could educate industry leaders on the benefits of producing the best goods in the world.

5. “Reduce Patent Protection,” by an anonymous reader. As Slate’s own Matthew Yglesias wrote in August, the loser of many patent wars is the consumer. This reader agrees and argues that we should reduce patent protections in order to foster innovation. Most patents are owned by massive corporations and serve as roadblocks to invention. Revamping the patent system to protect individual innovators could bring fresh ideas to U.S. manufacturing.

Congratulations to the winners, and thanks to all readers who voted and submitted an idea! Be sure to check out Slate writers’ own ideas about the future of American manufacturing.

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