Citing what he referred to as “progressive companies” he identified during the research phase of his latest book, “Saving American Manufacturing,” Collins provided some examples: Ohio-based Crown Equipment, which specializes in electric lift trucks, began to feel the weight of international competition bearing down on the industry. But instead of going overseas to take on the likes of Japan, Collins said Crown kept production stateside and focused on innovation through technological advancements and new product developments. “Today they’re the leader in their market,” he said.

Innovation also played a key role in the survival of EMP, Inc., a Michigan-based supplier to the automotive industry. While competitive pressures drove some parts and component suppliers off the road, Collins said EMP took the lead via specialization. Specifically, the company focused on one critical component of an automotive engine (the oil filter) and made it a high-tech device. Plus, Collins notes, EMP reinvested in the company via a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility featuring robotics. Sales grew from $19 million to $300 million, Collins reports.

Then there are those companies that changed direction completely. These include Minster Machine—a long-time player in the metal forming sector. When the auto industry’s woes took its toll on other suppliers in the segment, this outfit saw the writing on the wall. But instead of folding, Collins said the company diversified into other areas, leveraging technology to its advantage.

While some may consider these success stories exceptions to the rule, Collins points to some common threads. Among them: new products; lean manufacturing and continuous improvement; decentralized organizations for faster response; a highly skilled workforce; dedication to employee training; intense customer focus and relations; and development of new markets, because “it’s important to diversify your customer base so you don’t end up with one very large customer that treats you badly.”

Perhaps Collins’ parting words for attendees provided the biggest lift. “We can still achieve growth—just not the way we’ve done it before,” he said. But in order to achieve that growth and, more importantly, sustain it over the long haul, Collins said something else is required. “The critical mass of manufacturing in America must be maintained.”

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