After years of seemingly every little item being made cheaper offshores, the United States' ability — and inclination — to make its own products is experiencing a decidedly modern comeback, says David Wangler, president of transportation operations software provider TMW Systems. It's helping reshape the supply chain model that has evolved in the past decades, he says, and adept trucking companies and fleets are adjusting to meet changing needs.
"Making — as opposed to just consuming — is undergoing a tremendous surge in popularity in today's culture," Wangler said at the opening session Monday morning of TMW's Transforum conference in Orlando, FL. He noted that this resurgence might be "a backlash against mass-produced goods of poor quality," or maybe it's simply ingrained in the nation.
"Perhaps we've rediscovered our pride in the manufacturing heritage that made America the wonder of the industrial world, or a form of nostalgia for a more rural past when food on the table came largely from the family farm," Wangler contended. Today's technology, meanwhile, is creating expansive opportunities within this new maker movement.
Unlike in the past, "ideas are blossoming exponentially in new open-source online communities," Wangler said. "Creativity and the urge to make things are finding new outlets in local craft breweries, import car performance tuning and even applying home 3-D printers to construct affordable prosthetics for disabled children."
It's not just making quality products or creating and producing new items, he argued, but a rising popularity of the do-it-yourself approach in everything from home renovation to home-cooked meals. The growing maker culture requires major adjustments in a supply chain that has adapted to manufacturers using low-cost labor to produce goods at long distances.
"The rush of the past few decades to offshore manufacturing jobs is now hindering our ability to return to more of a maker economy," Wangler noted. "As the economy has truly become globalized, we have created incredibly long and complicated supply chains.
"We purchase barbecue grills made in China, we consider looking at a new car made in Korea, we wear clothing manufactured in the Philippines, we use rare earth minerals mined in Africa," he continued. "And all these goods have to make their way by truck and train and boat — then again by truck and train and more trucks — to reach us, the consumer. There are no alternatives to trucking for a vast portion of those journeys."
While the transportation industry has molded itself to meet the needs of offshore production, craftsman, builder and other hands-on trade roles have long been declining, according to Wangler. "In our schools, vocational curriculums have been minimized, and discussions about technical training or even associate degrees are often met with resistance," he told the audience. "The effects of trying to funnel every student towards a four-year college degree, regardless of aptitude or market opportunity, are starting to be seen everywhere."
As a result, workers like machinists or electricians can be difficult to find when needed, while many college grads are struggling to find good employment. Trucking also has long felt the fallout, Wangler contended: "The shift away from respecting work that doesn't take place behind a desk has certainly contributed to our national shortage of truck drivers and maintenance techs," he said.
The maker movement, as TMW recognizes it, could help spur newfound appreciation for those hands-on jobs that aren't performed at a desk working on a computer, including truck drivers and maintenance technicians. And despite efforts to develop autonomous trucks, Wangler emphasized the importance of truck drivers' role, which he noted goes well beyond operating a commercial vehicle proficiently to things like customer satisfaction and promoting company image.
"We rely on professional drivers who can think, who maintain situational awareness in crowded traffic conditions and avoid becoming involved in accidents with texting teenagers," he pointed out. "This is where our industry as a whole might benefit from the maker movement, as it generates a turning point in how society values working with your hands; perhaps it shows us how work in the transportation industry in general might be changing for the better."
Just as technology is enabling and helping define the maker movement, it's also the key to extending the trucking industry's capabilities, according to the TMW president, who also emphasized the role of real-time analysis and application of layered data. Autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks could be used to increase truck drivers' job satisfaction, for example, rather than some way to replace drivers.
"Perhaps after a long day of pickups or drops, the driver will be able to enter a dedicated autonomous truck lane on I-80 and rest up in the sleeper while the truck covers a few hundred miles," Wangler said. "He or she would be awakened just in time for the real driving adventure through the south side of Chicago, still responsible for the safety of other motorists, pedestrians and property in addition to providing top-notch customer service."
Savvy trucking companies and fleets will look to use technology systems and logistics to improve the rigidly-structured and regulated driver job, Wangler suggested. "Many forward-thinking carriers are now retooling their networks, injecting rail into long-haul moves and deploying teams and other tactics to improve driver quality of life and increase home time," he said, adding that he believes "in addition to platooning, we will see autonomous singles on the road" in the near future.
Along with improvements for drivers, perhaps an increased perceptual value of and technology applied to hands-on trades will bolster fleet maintenance roles as well. "A mechanic makes a difference in vehicle and driver safety, fleet productivity, fuel efficiency, driver satisfaction — even in your brand image — each time he touches a truck," Wangler said. "With the right systems managing the shop, that daily repair and maintenance activity automatically feeds into your warranty recovery process and can make a contribution to offsetting your costs."
Meanwhile, desk and office positions aren't going anywhere. They'll continue to support and empower drivers and service technicians through more agile, flexible technology and logistics and are part of trucking's role also as a maker, Wangler contended, since trucking "makes the most of time."
"Our business calls for moving products and taking services from point A to point B, and often the rest of the alphabet too," he told the audience. "We can't alter distances between those points, but we can manage the time it takes" to cover them, Wangler added. And carriers can manage other things better to save time, too, like sending a truck to a repair shop along its route that has a needed preventive maintenance part in stock.
TMW announced a number of software integrations and enhancements of its product offerings at the conference, and Wangler said the company is looking to foster a community of users that can learn from each other and gain insight into operations improvements and measures. "The quantity of data collected by the companies in this room is staggering and represents far more than just a statistically valid sample of the market," he contended. "We want to build a community where you can safely contribute and benefit from the data generated by all of its members.
"With your cooperation, we can achieve something no one else can, providing our community with the ability to discern important patterns and to benefit from detailed business comparisons with the very highest performers," Wangler said.