Harnessing Advanced Manufacturing in Southern California

21 Jun

While most sectors have seen a decline in employment in recent years, more than 495,000 manufacturing jobs have been created nation-wide since January 2010. According to a new white paper by the Boston Company Asset Management, “small to midsize component suppliers are among the U.S. companies most likely to benefit first from a resurgence in American manufacturing.” With over half-a-million manufacturing jobs in the Los Angeles area, the region is saturated with small-sized manufacturing companies, over half of which are in the higher-wage durable manufacturing subsector.  Well-established firms like Superior Thread Rolling Company and B&B Manufacturing Co., supply high-precision, complex, specialty machined parts for aerospace, military and other leading sectors.  Firms like these form the backbone of Southern California’s solid, but often overlooked advanced manufacturing cluster.

Advanced manufacturing is the development and production of high-tech, complex products.  The Department of Labor characterizes advanced manufacturing as “implementing process improvements, increasing quality controls, and installing advanced robotics and other intelligent production systems” [PDF]. Groups like the Center for Labor and Community Research, which founded the National Manufacturing Renaissance Council, argue that “an economy based on advanced manufacturing holds the greatest potential to create sustainable, long-term economic growth; rebuild the American middle class; and solve the global environmental crisis.”

The Brookings Institution and the White House have joined the movement to invest in American’s cutting-edge productive capacity. Last year President Obama launched an Advanced Manufacturing Partnership that brings together universities, industry and the federal government to invest in technologies, such as information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, that will support the creation of good jobs by helping U.S. manufacturers reduce costs, improve quality, and accelerate product development.

This is good news for Southern California, which boasts not only longstanding firms like Superior Thread and B&B Manufacturing – each with over 50 years in the business — but is also a center for clean technology firms such as Capstone Turbine Corporation, an innovator in alternative energy parts manufacturing. Capstone produces “low –emission microturbine systems” that are (according to Wikipedia) “one of the most promising technologies for powering hybrid electric vehicles.”

And while a recent labor-community coalition’s effort to leverage a major $890-million LA METRO contract to build light rail cars fell short of its goal of bringing rail manufacturing to Los Angeles, the Southland holds the proud distinction of being the home of SpaceX, the ultimate advanced transportation manufacturer. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the International Space Station, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean on May 31st. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, employs 1400 workers at the firm’s Hawthorne facility to build most of its spacecraft in-house to gain efficiencies and lower costs.

The key to SpaceX’s success is finding the best talent to build the most competitive rocket company in the world.  Whether rail cars or rockets, if Southern California is to build on its existing strengths and become the center for advanced manufacturing in this country, it will have to realign workforce development strategies to train the next generation of highly skilled workers and preserve local supply chains through smart land use policies that protect manufacturing.  Thoughtful, strategic policies in government procurement contracting will also be important to nurture the clustering of industries that form the ecosystem of innovation.

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