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issue: October 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
The Need for a Strong U.S. Manufacturing Base

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by Tom Rand, engineering manager, U-Line Corp.

Why do Americans feel relatively secure that they will never have to be worried about a full-scale war in which their way of life is threatened? That their interests at home and abroad are protected from foreign armies? Because in the wake of the Cold War, America found itself the sole superpower, with the best-trained and best-equipped military forces in the world, from stealth aircraft to nuclear submarines to high-tech spy satellites.

Yes, the global war on terror is being fought every day in the United States and abroad by the various security agencies. And while this war has risks—and even threats that can reach the homeland as 9/11 showed—it does not encompass a prolonged war between armies with naval and air combat such as the one the “greatest generation” endured during World War II. Since that time, global conflict has been defined by either a superpower alliance–building strategy or political terrorism. But what if another nation emerges with a strong industrial base that desires to become the global superpower through armed conflict? Could the U.S. manufacturing base be able to answer the call and support the military effort?

The answer is critical because history has shown that manufacturing strength can defeat superior technology and military training. In the Civil War, the South had the superior officers and better-trained army, but the Northern factories could better supply the Union army and eventually wore the Confederate soldiers down. In World War II, the Axis military machine was the most powerful and best trained, with the best weapons at the start of the war. There is little dispute that the German Tiger and Panther tanks were far superior to the American Sherman tanks, but during the war, German factories produced fewer than 7000 of these tanks while the United States, relying heavily on its automotive plants, produced 40,000 Shermans.

What does all this have to do with the appliance industry? The military/aerospace industry has historically enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the commercial and consumer manufacturing industries such as appliance and automotive. Work forces, technology, R&D, components, and manufacturing capacity have all been shared at times.

The forerunner of today’s U-Line Corp. was Ben Hur Freezers. At the onset of World War II, Ben Hur was a machine shop that converted its production capability to make crankshafts for the Willys Jeep and, eventually, water tankers and trailers to transport fresh water and supplies to the troops, as well as to transport wounded soldiers to field hospitals.

The two sectors have also shared technology and R&D: An aircraft compressor that had been finely tuned for peak performance in military applications could be transferred to commercial chillers. This commercial volume could, in turn, improve manufacturing capability for the military application. This technology sharing and commercial payback also help to justify the military research and investment, but if the components developed end up being produced in foreign plants, what is the net payback to the U.S. economy?

The U.S. manufacturing base should not and will not survive based on fear or patriotism and a “buy ‘Made in America’” attitude. In this age of globalization, that just will not happen. But as a nation, the United States should seek a level playing field in terms of environmental regulations, liability, and workers’ rights issues. Americans should also view the ability to manufacture products in their homeland as critical to the long-term economic and military stability of the country.

The ability to develop and retain engineering and manufacturing capability could be critical if, at some point, a developing nation with a stronger manufacturing base develops aspirations for global domination—or a global shortage of critical natural resources leads to armed conflict.

The appliance industry provides a place to develop a workforce from top to bottom that can meet that challenge. If the appliance industry factories are lost on U.S. soil, not only does the industry lose the capability to support a military conflict, it also loses the capability to support those people in the middle-income classes that help the American economy stay strong. 

About the Author

Tom Rand is the engineering manager at U-Line Corp. (Milwaukee, WI, U.S.). He has MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT and a BA from Bowdoin College. If you wish to contact Rand, e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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