Who’s Pushing U.S. Manufacturing Forward?

manufacturingThe future of American manufacturing isn’t only “Made in America.” Accelerating the rebound in U.S. factories depends on what they make and how they make it, not just where. And so Chief Executive is initiating our list of 20 Makers for American Manufacturing.

We wanted to identify a core group of leaders making a significant difference to American manufacturing on their own or that represent dynamics providing vigor to this crucial sector of the economy.

By definition, they’re faring well.

“There’s new construction in nearly every major market,” says Andrew Philipp, president of Clarus Glassboards, which supplies the office market. “We see cranes, and we see opportunity.”

Despite the rising economy, plenty of challenges remain for our 20 Makers and for American manufacturing in general. Will growth raise commodity prices so high that some of our Makers will be crimped? How will changes in trade policy impact access to growth markets?

And how will U.S. manufacturers possibly fill the estimated 2.5 million jobs that are expected to go begging by 2025? The Makers are working on the answers.

DAN ARIENS / ARIENS, BRILLION, WI

The mid-market lawn equipment competitor to Toro and Honda has leveraged outsized R&D investments to come up with innovations such as a zero-turn mower that muscled its way late into the market and has chomped up a big share. Ariens recently put up a $10 million R&D center and design studio and has tried to fill out its vital pipeline of new skilled workers by funding a technology center at a local high school, an elementary school STEM education center that engages kids as early as the third grade and a new Ariens Academy at the front of its original factory.

“Education is a journey in itself,” Ariens says. “Learning continuously in the plant with our employees, developing leadership and teaching our principles to people who come out of high school and technical colleges are now just extensions of the business we are in.”

MARY BARRA / GENERAL MOTORS, DETROIT, MI

First, she handled the faulty ignition debacle with determination and elan, putting to rest any doubts about a woman running a carmaker. The former manufacturing chief is taking an aggressive approach to transforming the company, as the industry faces the rise of electrification and autonomous driving. She has made GM a surprising leader in each.

Meanwhile, Barra streamlined the company by shedding its money-losing European plants, favoring profits over scope.

SCOTT DUNN / URBAN MINING, SAN MARCOS, TX

A leader in the growing circular economy, Dunn figured out that there’s a mother lode of rare earth material sitting in discarded hard drives, old Prius hybrids and sundry scrap heaps across America, more than enough to fuel his raw startup recycling business—and maybe give his country leverage in strategic commodities.

“We thought we’d be able to decentralize this supply chain that otherwise is dominated by China by using recycled or end-of-life applications as raw material feedstock for remanufacturing an entire range of performance grades,” Dunn says. “And even improve performance in some critical end-use applications. We’ll do better than virgin materials.” The material cost advantage to customers of Urban Mining is huge—and timely—in view of supply concerns. “We want to stabilize this and add an element of  sustainability on our shores, from missile systems down to future electrical propulsion devices,” he says.

Automation is crucial because of the variety of its products that need to be controlled and closely monitored. Even Urban Mining’s standalone quality inspection systems are as cutting edge as it gets.

DAVID FARR / EMERSON ELECTRIC, ST. LOUIS, MO

A chief medium for the economy’s renewed “animal spirits” under President Trump, Farr chairs the National Association of Manufacturers, pushing for tax reform and deregulation, championing American factories and leading his $41 billion maker of automation and processing technology in an ambitious restructuring. Emerson also supports many STEM education initiatives to renew its workforce, including efforts to bring new jobs to Ferguson, Missouri, after the riots.

“With shorter product life cycles, everyone has to innovate.” – Proto labs ceo vicki holt

VICKI HOLT / PROTO LABS, ST. PAUL, MN

A pioneer spreading the gospel of Industry 4.0 among traditional manufacturers, Proto creates prototypes digitally and performs small-batch fabrication to help customers get up and running fast with custom parts. “With shorter product life cycles, everyone has to innovate,” says Holt. She also works with manufacturers to develop their own IoT capabilities, automated inspection and other aspects of a “digital thread.”

Holt estimates that “about 50 percent of companies’ annual revenues come from products they came out with in the last three years, and life cycles are getting shorter. To be able to address that, we’ve got to be taking advantage of manufacturing technologies and Manufacturing 4.0, or we won’t be able to compete.” The $300 million company employs 2,300 in three U.S. cities, Europe and Japan.

DEAN KAMEN / ADVANCED REGENERATIVE MANUFACTURING INSTITUTE, MANCHESTER, NH

The legendary inventor of the Segway and iBot, a motorized wheelchair, also invented an inexpensive water purification system for developing countries and co-founded the FIRST high school robotics competition. Now he’s turning lab breakthroughs in bioscience into large-scale manufacturing of engineered tissues that could be used by humans needing organ transplants, for instance.

JAMES KEANE / STEELCASE, GRAND RAPIDS, MI

Predecessor Jim Hackett may now be running Ford, but under Keane, the world’s largest office furniture maker keeps innovating in its R&D labs and on the factory floor to match fast-changing market dynamics and increasing customer demands for configurability and customization.

Keane asked CIO Bob Krestakos to shift to a new role as head of global operations. “I wanted to capture the opportunities presented by data-driven manufacturing,” Keane says of Krestakos’s challenging assignment. “That is helping us redefine what world-class manufacturing means at Steelcase.” But while Steelcase has been bringing AI and machine learning to its plants, Keane’s philosophy is to blend automation with increasingly skilled employees to ensure maximum flexibility.

ALY KHALIFA / OCEANWORKS, RALEIGH, N.C.

Where most people might see the millions of tons of plastic, non-biodegradable “ocean waste” that has become the biggest bunch of jetsam in history as an environmental disaster, serial entrepreneur Khalifa saw an unexploited raw material base ready for harvesting. Oceanworks’s innovative supply chain does more than just create sunglasses and surfboards. It also helps companies that want to help the earth.

“They know it’s a problem, and brands want to connect, but they didn’t have the bandwidth or mechanisms to get there,” Khalifa said. “We did. “We’ve found ourselves in this niche of innovating products and as a result, having to innovate manufacturing,” he says. “Ultimately, you can’t design things to be innovative unless you’re innovating the methods and materials used to make them.”

MAXIM LOBOVSKY FORMLABS, SOMERVILLE, MA

Three MIT whiz kids, Lobovsky, Natan Linder and David Cranor, founded Formlabs in 2011 with a celebrated Kickstarter campaign that raised a then-record $3 million. They used the funding to develop an easy-to-use and affordable desktop stereolithography 3D printer.

Already, Formlabs is pushing from prototypes and one-off, high-value parts into mass-customized products, including dentures and dental crowns. At CES, Formlabs demonstrated individualized earbuds 3D-printed from a scan of your body. “Ears vary a great deal—more than any other part of the body,” Lobovsky says. “So these are more comfortable and provide better sound.”

Formlabs is working on making a “retail experience” out of having a consumer’s ears scanned and form-fitting buds printed on the spot. He has high hopes for U.S. leadership in additive manufacturing, but warns that China and other competitors are catching up. “The capabilities there are really growing, and we’re actually behind in some areas. It’s important for the U.S. to incentivize manufacturers to modernize their equipment.”

DAVID MACNEIL / WEATHERTECH, BOLLINGBROOK, IL 

Through his company’s Super Bowl ads over the last five years, MacNeil has emerged as an original and significant champion of “Made in America”— before it was cool. He and his employees even produce and star in their own Big Game ads.

WeatherTech uses digital processes to make high-end, customized car floor mats and other goods. Next, MacNeil promises to make over the sleepy pet bowl market, too, with a stainless steel line that leverages advanced manufacturing.

FREDERICK MARCELL / STANDBY  SCREW MACHINE PRODUCTS, BEREA, OH

The mid-market manufacturer of precision fasteners and other parts is third generation family-owned. Two robots that can run safely among workers throughout the plant ease the demands for low-skilled labor so Standby can redeploy workers in value-added tasks. Yet, even this doesn’t make Standby price competitive in commodity segments, so it also owns a plant in Guangzhou, China, for low-cost output.

ELON MUSK / TESLA, PALO ALTO, CA

He’s actually an underperformer as far as manufacturing goes, describing the messy ramp-up of the Tesla 3 as “production hell.” But as the manufacturing chief with arguably the world’s grandest ambitions, Musk already has revolutionized the auto industry—and space travel—and likely won’t stop until he’s turned at least a couple of other sectors upside down. His biggest imminent contribution may be lowering the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

GREGORY OWENS / SHERRILL MANUFACTURING, SHERRILL, NY

In 2005, Owens and partner Matt Roberts assumed the industrial carcass of the iconic Oneida flatware brand, which once employed 2,800 people in upstate New York, and used a new business model based on high-quality manufacturing and cost-saving e-tailing instead of traditional department store distribution. Making Liberty Tabletop brand utensils, the factory now employs more than 40 people and mixes advanced automation with a human touch.

Oneida had spent years investing in automation but still couldn’t compete with bargain-basement Chinese pricing. “We took this very fundamental business—metal forming and polishing—and mashed it up to web marketing in a direct, modern, simple B2C model,” Owens says. “We can’t compete by selling it to Macy’s with its mark-ups, but we can certainly sell a box of flatware for 100 bucks, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The revolutionary retail model gives Sherrill financial room to do things right, such as adding skilled artisans to ensure adequate buffing in the area between a spoon bowl and handle. “We’re adding costs and driving quality back into it, which at the end of the day is good business because everyone else is doing the opposite,” Owens says.

ANDREW PHILIPP CLARUS GLASSBOARDS, FORT WORTH, TX

The simultaneous U.S. commercial construction boom, along with a rethinking of office space for the millennial workforce, means fast-rising demand for the company that dominates the business of making and installing dry-erase boards. The secret: “With Nike, you can customize your shoe in a week or two,” Philipp explains. “We wanted to bring that level of customization and customer intimacy to the office furniture world.”

That concept is less prevalent among competitors in Europe, so Philipp has been pushing exports to European countries and to both U.S. and home-grown companies there. He’s also targeting Australia and Southeast Asia.

ANTHONY PRATT PRATT INDUSTRIES, ATLANTA, GA

The red-haired, Australian-born industrialist has become an unlikely Made in America champion: Pratt regularly takes out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal to praise President Trump’s policies and to push others, such as boosting food exports. With 6,000 workers and plants spread across 27 states, he’s riding booms in packaged goods and home delivery to become the nation’s fifth-biggest corrugated box maker.

DON ROMINE / WEB INDUSTRIES, MARLBOROUGH, MA

The mid-market expert in flexible materials processing serves trusted brand names and end products in aerospace, including carbon fibers for next-generation jetliners; consumer products, such as adult incontinence diapers; medical diagnostics, ranging from blood analyzer ampules to diabetes test strips; and insulated wire and cable. Web puts together team-building workshops with leading customers that gather as many as 30 people from all over the world.

“This drives our innovation efforts,” Romine says. Web also encourages tenure and loyalty by being 100 percent owned by its 575 employees at six U.S. plants and one in Europe. “Without the hearts and minds of your people being unleashed, you’re going to hobble your potential for innovation,” Romine says. “And if you don’t address the future, you’ll get left behind.”

ANDRA RUSH / RUSH GROUP, DETROIT, MI

A leading female entrepreneur in U.S. manufacturing, Rush added auto component production after building a huge logistics business 30 years ago into the teeth of trucking deregulation and the industry old boys’ club. She established a highly automated integrator of automotive subsystems and a joint venture with Faurecia that makes interior components and instrument panel systems for Ford in Detroit.

Rush Group likes to feed its employment needs with dual-skills certifications, which offer technical training and college credits in high school, leading directly to mid-level journeyman jobs. With Native American roots, Rush favors factory sites that help disadvantaged workers. The $2 billion company now employs more than 3,000 people at 20 plants in Detroit, Toledo and near Native reservations.

Minority-owned companies like hers “are the fastest-growing businesses in the U.S., hire more people sooner and recover faster than other enterprises, given access to capital and opportunity,” says Rush, who is an active national advocate in groups such as the U.S. Manufacturing Council.

She fears that concerns about the future of U.S. manufacturing may be regionalized. “I’m not sure if that Made in America mindfulness is as prevalent along the coasts as in the Midwest,” she says.

AUSTIN RUSSELL / LUMINAR, PALO ALTO, CA

To get to the era of autonomous vehicles, auto and digital tech companies need to demonstrate the reliability of their sensing and vision systems. While approaches vary, so far the industry has favored the use of LIDARs: detection systems that use the principles of radar but with lasers. Luminar is an early leader in LIDAR production and has the potential to ride its technology and manufacturing prowess to big things if driverless cars become commonplace in several years.

BILL SCHAHUBER WATSON METAL MASTERS, REPUBLIC, MO

Watson epitomizes the crucial awakening of mid-market, mid-continent makers in the U.S. manufacturing renaissance, building high-quality stainless steel tanks, from one gallon to 250,000 gallons, for verticals ranging from specialty chemicals to food processing.

Having left poor-quality and remote Chinese competitors behind, Schahuber doubled the size of Watson’s plant four years ago and then again two years ago. And he’s just broken ground on a $13 million investment in factory automation to help Watson and its 115 skilled employees keep up with domestic demand. “With rising competitiveness, we’ve been able to bring in new business as we ride the curve of the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing,” Schahuber says. “We’re reaching out to larger and larger Fortune 100 companies, and we’ve had some very large orders in this last year.”

Automation has cut Watson’s costs and also helped finance compensation increases for the skilled workers that the company must retain to keep growing. “We’re keeping pace in pay and benefits and staying ahead of the other local manufacturers that we have to be competitive against,” Schahuber says. “And as consumers, our workers have additional money to turn over in the local economy.”

ROGER VARIN / STÄUBLI N.A., DUNCAN, SC

The U.S. arm of the Swiss-based industrial giant participates in two huge, ongoing trends: robotics and foreign direct investment. Stäubli’s “co-bots,” collaborate with humans on production lines.

“With these new robots,” Varin explains, “you can be close by—even have a person hand a robot an application or part, [it does] something with it and then hands it to another person. [Robots are] driven by sensors and able to see movements. That makes it safe.” Stäubli’s 25 percent expansion of its 100,000-square-foot factory exemplifies the surge of foreign direct investment in U.S. manufacturing that’s sure to pick up after the cut in U.S. corporate tax rates to compete with European rates.

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

PARTNER CENTER