Editorial

Manufacturing is cool (and so is beer)

September 4, 2015
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Five years ago, Grand Rapids Business Journal rarely mentioned craft beer in its pages, and then usually only as an afterthought. Now there is a reporter assigned to cover the beat, Pat Evans, who frequently appears on television for segments with partner station WZZM TV13 and has written a book on beer in Grand Rapids (“Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing”).

It’s funny how much things have changed.

But have they really?

The Great Recession dealt a crippling blow to the manufacturing industry — particularly tool and die — and sent Michigan’s economy spiraling into the doldrums. Automakers went into a tailspin, manufacturers laid off employees by the thousands, and Michigan’s “make it” mentality ground to a halt with not much of anything being made here anymore.

The “experts” said manufacturing would never return to its glorified status, and no longer would “good-paying” jobs be available to people who could show up on time and put forth an honest day’s effort.

While there is some truth to that statement — more education is certainly required for today’s jobs — the Business Journal would rather look at the Great Recession from a different perspective. To steal a phrase from Wall Street, let’s call it a market correction.

By necessity, manufacturing today is a lot “cooler” than it was just a decade ago. Today’s story on Page 3 detailing Western Michigan University’s involvement in a national manufacturing “scale-up” of flexible hybrid electronic technologies is inspiring. The fact that the program’s genesis is at institutions of higher learning is encouraging.

So, too, is the story of Larry Bell and his 30-year-old Bell’s Brewery, which appears on Page 1. The fact is that craft brewing is really manufacturing with a dash of “cool” added to the mix. And while craft brewers like Bell’s and Founders don’t employ workers on the scale of “traditional” manufacturers like Amway or Steelcase, it should be noted that both of those companies started small, too.

What’s really encouraging about these new manufacturers is they act just like the old ones: Long hours, trial and error, innovation and determination to succeed are all trademarks that apply to them.

They also align closely with the communities in which they operate. Today’s story on the opening page of the Focus Section that details brewers’ repurposing of old or vacant structures into thriving production facilities is indicative of the manufacturing mentality: Let’s make something useful.

Adding brewers’ creative flair to the old perception of “stodgy” manufacturing certainly can’t hurt the industry.

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