Opinion: Government must work efficiently for manufacturers

Gary Peters

When I visited Plascore, Inc. in Zeeland, I saw firsthand how workers are manufacturing a honeycomb-designed structure that will help launch a manned spacecraft to Mars. Technical expertise, innovation and advanced manufacturing at businesses like this reinforced the extraordinary cutting-edge work happening right here in Michigan.

A worker cuts an oil pipe at a factory in Qingdao in China's eastern Shandong province on February 28, 2019. - China's manufacturing activity shrunk for a third straight month in February, sinking to its worst performance in three years as the economy slows and the US trade war bites, official data showed on February 28. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUTSTR/AFP/Getty Images

That’s exactly part of what we do as Michiganians: We make things.

We built the Model T that rolled off the assembly line. We built the Arsenal of Democracy that helped us win World War II. And we built the modern middle class.

But the focus of federal policy has gradually shifted away from manufacturing and toward other industries like tech and finance. We have seen venture capital firms shower cities on the coasts with investment, while ignoring places in the Midwest.

Today, advancements in artificial intelligence and automation are progressing. Some call these technologies disruptive.

I take a different view: change is only disruptive if it’s happening to you. If you are leading the change, it becomes transformational.

However, it’s difficult to take a transformational approach to manufacturing under the current piecemeal system. For example, according to the Government Accountability Office, there are 58 specific manufacturing programs across 11 federal agencies. They largely do important work, but they are often siloed away from each other and buried in bureaucracy.

International competitors, including China and South Korea, both have a national manufacturing plan and have increased investments in manufacturing research and development by 90 percent and 50 percent, respectively, over the past five years. The United States has increased investment in this area only 10 percent.

We can’t let red tape get in our way. I’ve heard from Michigan manufacturers about how we need a unified strategy to maintain our position as a leader in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

So here’s the change I’m proposing: Let’s create a National Institute of Manufacturing.

The National Institute of Manufacturing will streamline the numerous scattered efforts in the federal government. A hub for manufacturing under one roof will boost coordination, reduce overlapping efforts and strengthen our ability to respond to evolving national needs.

Inspired by the National Institute of Health, which works on medical research to cure cancer and address heart disease, the National Institute of Manufacturing will have directorates to focus on technology development, industrial commons, education and workforce, small and medium manufacturers and trade. And the head of the National Institute of Manufacturing will serve as U.S. chief manufacturing officer, who will be charged with developing a national strategy.

This will also root out any waste and make government more efficient — especially for small-sized manufacturers that are job creators across Michigan. Every dollar invested in manufacturing generates as much as $1.82 in value in other sectors of our national economy. In Michigan, over 600,000 jobs rely directly on manufacturing. The National Institute of Manufacturing will make it easier for our private sector to work with the federal government to support job creation.

From original concept to skilled tooling to precision engineering, manufacturers build expertise to make great products. Our policies should value and encourage that craftsmanship. That’s why we need to strengthen skills training and access to apprenticeships.

Today, we stand at a crossroads. We only have a short time to take action.

We have two options: we can sit by and let this change happen — and have new changes be disruptive. Or we can seize this opportunity — like Plascore and so many Michigan manufacturers already have — and bring change that’s good for Michigan.

Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, represents Michigan in the U.S. Senate.