China. The recession. The lack of a robust recovery. How to retain workers whose training you’ve invested in. Where to find trained workers to replace those who retire. Where to find credit. Weighing the cost and complexity of environmental regulations and health-care reform. Did we mention China and the recession?
With all they’ve had to worry about in the past year, it’s a wonder Washington manufacturers have had time or resources to innovate. But innovate they have, as demonstrated by the winners in the second annual Washington Manufacturing Awards.
In reviewing the dozens of nominations this year, the judges convened by Seattle Business magazine were struck by the breadth and depth of innovation in the state’s manufacturing community.
Some of that innovation was applied to simply surviving. “When the downturn hit, these business owners and managers took the necessary steps to lean down their organizations to match the decreasing revenues,” says Tom McLaughlin, executive director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound. “They made cuts that hurt, but did what was needed to survive.”
But even in the depths of the recession, they also spent time developing new products, new markets, new technologies, creating the opportunities that will contribute to growth for years to come.
Because of innovation, manufacturing is one of Washington’s healthier sectors. While not back to its pre-recession peak, manufacturing employment in the state is already several thousand jobs ahead of a year ago. Department of Revenue data on gross business income for manufacturing show a 10.4 percent gain in the third quarter of 2010 versus the previous year. (The average gain for all types of business was 6.1 percent.)
John Vicklund, president of Impact Washington, which consults with manufacturers on improving productivity and competitiveness, sees innovation across the spectrum of Washington manufacturers.
“It kind of sneaks up on you,” he says. These innovations may not generate the splashy headlines of a new plane like Boeing’s 787, but they enable companies to develop new products, open new markets (particularly in exports) or grab additional market share in seemingly stagnant industries.
Adds Vicklund, “They’re not sitting back and waiting for someone to tell them what to do.”