Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy

Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy

Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy

Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy

Excerpt

The newspapers remind us daily that basic changes are afoot in the world economy and that the United States is neither shaping them nor responding to them very well. There are stories of restrictions on the import of automobiles, accompanied by pieces about how the Japanese produce cars much less expensively than American firms, and seemingly to higher quality standards. At first those stories focused on wages: ours high, theirs low. But now, as the wage gap disappears, the stories report that the Japanese advantage lies in the organization of production and the effective use of automation, not in low wages. There are stories—confusing, disparate pieces—about General Motors's response to the Japanese pressure: some are about GM arranging to source in Korea; others report on joint production in California with Toyota; and still others tell about a strategy for factory automation in which robots and computer vision systems are to be linked through telecommunications nets that tie design to production and the point of sale to the shop floor. Does the new automation mean more jobs? Fewer jobs? More than what? Fewer than what? Does knowing something about GM, even a most confusing something, really tell us anything about the rest of American industry? GM—and IBM and AT&T —can try all strategies at once, or at least experiment with a few. Smaller companies have to pick one, and pick it soon. What will they decide to do? What will determine their choices? What do those choices mean for the rest of us? All these stories have migrated from the business page to the front page, and they will not quietly drift back.

There are other stories. American companies find themselves trading for Polish ham and Malaysian wicker, discovering that in the twentieth century the premarket game of barter is back. Entrepreneurial semiconductor firms, a symbol of venture capitalism, find themselves suddenly fighting for survival with giant integrated Japanese corporations. Collective research and development projects in Japan are forcing cooperative efforts at R&D and new production technologies among independent Silicon Valley firms whose executive offices are hung with brash slogans of gunslinging individualism. Under the pressure of Japanese competition, ever-

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