Changing Gears is a public media project about the future of the industrial Midwest. Each week, reporters Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland, Niala Boodhoo in Chicago and Kate Davidson in Ann Arbor cover issues of interest to the Great Lakes region. Changing Gears also sponsors public events and conversations.
This month, we’re taking a look at some of the hidden assets of the industrial Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths.
We found one hidden asset right smack in the middle of our manufacturing sector. It’s a machine that’s in literally thousands of factories across the Midwest. And, though, you might not have heard of it before, the CNC machine – and the people who operate it – are at the core of our economy.
CNC stands for computer-numerically-controlled. And what the computerized machine does is it machines things. That sounds ridiculous unless you know that machine is not just a noun. It’s also a specific manufacturing process.
It’s when you cut away a material. It’s basically commercial sculpting.
“Machining is at, or very close to, the foundation of manufacturing,” says Peter Zelinski, senior editor at Modern Machine Shop magazine.
Manufacturing has been at the center of the Midwest’s long-term decline, shedding some 8 million jobs over the past three decades. More recently, it has been at the forefront of the region’s economic recovery.
In October, manufacturing was the leading sector in the Midwest Economy Index, which measures economic activity in the region. It was, in fact, the only sector to make a positive contribution to the index, produced monthly by the Chicago Fed.
Changing Gears reporters Kate Davidson and Dan Bobkoff examined the current state of manufacturing in the Midwest recently for American Public Media’s Marketplace. They found that today’s successful Midwest manufacturers look “more like startups than smokestacks.”
Back in June, President Obama came to Pittsburgh to tout something called Advanced Manufacturing. He created a group to work on it, made up of government officials, academics, and industry. The point, the president says, is to promote innovation, make the country more competitive. But, we wanted to know:
Three stories making news across the Midwest today:
1. Angry residents confront Emanuel. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel sought solutions for the city’s budget woes during a public meeting Monday night. He got more than he bargained for, according to reports from our partner station WBEZ. A question from a laid-off traffic employee led to an extended back-and-forth with union members in the audience. “I’m responsible to the city taxpayers and the city residents,” Emanuel said, referring to a projected $635 million budget deficit. Audience members yelled that they were taxpayers too.
2. Honda renovates Ohio plants. Honda announced Monday it would spend $355 million to refurbish four plants in Ohio, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The improvements come as the automaker returns to full production following the Japanese catastrophes. The Dispatch reports some jobs will be added, but specifics are not yet available. Honda has more than 13,000 employees in the Buckeye State.
3. Lawmakers seek tax-credit extension. Tax credits for advanced battery manufacturers in Michigan are scheduled to be phased out by Gov. Rick Snyder, but Democrats in the state Legislature want to extend the incentives packages. The Associated Press reported Monday that the Democratic proposal would include tax credits for battery production and facility construction, as well as credits for buying electric vehicles and charging stations.
The Great Lakes region has always been known as a center of advanced manufacturing. But with auto jobs disappearing, that title may be up for grabs. Now, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington, KY, want to nab it.
Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, and Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, announced in Chicago on Thursday that they will team up for an 18-month, $250,000 study of how to turn their region into a “cluster” of advanced manufacturing expertise.