'Making things' still allows economy to hum

March 22, 2010
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Some people just refuse to be part of the Great Recession; some move ahead despite rough waters … and business owners continue to make strides and stick to business no matter what the “economic climate” or the “political climate.”

The Grand Rapids poster child for this time is certainly Jim Zawacki, chairman of the privately held Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping, who will invest another $1.6 million in the automotive parts manufacturing business this spring. Automotive … parts … manufacturing; each word is important to consider as this region continues to shake the length of the downturn. Each word is important to underscore because despite the “PC” view, manufacturing is not dead, and if it were the threat of economic collapse would be far greater than that seen in 2008.

Zawacki was among the best prepared manufacturers having ramped up in the ‘90s with  “lean” manufacturing principles and diversifying the client base to include BMW, Toyota, Nissan and Volkswagen.

In a recent report from the Harvard Business School Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness (and noted by Business Leaders for Michigan) notes that even while the number of U.S. patents issued has declined in this recession, Michigan is ranked 10th overall for number of patents per employee, and 65 percent of Michigan corporate patents are driven by auto industry companies. The Right Place Manufacturer’s Council president Peter Perez, president of Carter Products, noted in a report last fall that the U.S. holds the bulk of the world’s patents, produces 22 percent of the world’s manufactured goods and continued research and development particularly in technology would continue to bolster this economy… particularly in West Michigan, long among the top cities in the country in patent holdings and entrepreneurial strength.

Cascade Engineering also is forging ahead, as it continues to diversify. Long one of the top plastics manufacturers for the auto industry, company chairman and CEO Fred Keller initiated a medical parts manufacturing division, and then began assembly, sales and installation of Swift small wind turbines. He then created Cascade Renewable Energy division, which last week installed the largest solar electric generating system in Michigan at Padnos Iron & Metal in Wyoming. Cascade is installing a similar system at its plant in Cascade.

Zawacki’s expansion very nearly took place in Kentucky. “Let’s just say, the political climate in Kentucky toward manufacturers is better than it is in Michigan — but we decided to keep it here,” he said.

Unless Michigan lenders and leaders understand the importance of “making things” and the impact of manufacturing on other business sectors, Zawacki’s next plant may indeed be outside the state of Michigan. Manufacturing remains a crucial foundation to the economy.

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