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A Lesson and Model to Inspire Progress

Posted by James Dulong

Oct 27, 2016 9:47:00 AM

Image of a car engine.I suppose there are many ways to inspire progress in your business. Born and raised in Michigan, I had a front row seat to changes in the American automotive industry. I want to share a little history as a kind of warning about destruction caused by comfort and complacency. In case you think this is an automotive blog, understand that I will tie this into the printing industry.

The boom of the auto industry propelled the city of Detroit. The three largest auto makers, dubbed the Big Three, were headquartered there and in 1960, the richest per capita city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was Detroit. In the early 1960’s, the Big Three had over 90% of the market of US Vehicle Sales. So what did it take to inspire progress from the Big Three? Unfortunately it took the threat of being run out of business by the Japanese auto manufacturers in the 1980’s.

In an article by Ross Eisenbrey posted on the Economic Policy Institute website, he states, “For nearly 30 years, the Big Three’s market share fell steadily, from 77 percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 2009, almost entirely because the U.S. companies built cars that were noisier and less comfortable, had poorer fit and finish, poorer gas mileage, more defects, and a poorer repair record and resale value.”

Fast forward to today and you see a different picture. "It's very hard to find products that aren't good anymore," says Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the automotive website. "In safety, performance and quality, the differences just don't have material impact." The good news is that the Big Three could change; and they did. The bad news is that it took an incredible amount of pressure before thy reacted.

So why is this bit about the Big Three important?

It highlights the effects of competition. While the Big Three were comparing themselves to each other, they missed the big changes taking place in their industry. When they had to compare themselves to the best in the world, they fell tragically short. Doing things the way they had always done them wasn’t good enough anymore. They had to change. The Big Three used investment in capital equipment, (automation, process controls, etc.), to regain much of the competitive ground that was lost during that 50 year stretch. I am certain that if they had reacted sooner, the Big Three would have been able maintain more of their market share.

So why is this important in the printing industry?

Saint Clair Systems purchased Norcross Corporation in 2014 and started to gather knowledge of the printing industry. The similarities between much of the printing industry today and the Big Three of the 1960’s has caught our attention. The similarities that are most apparent to our team are:

1. An over-reliance on old manufacturing methods

Much as the auto industry relied heavily on manual application of paints, sealers and adhesives, the printing industry relies heavily on manual monitoring and adjusting of key variables such as ink viscosity, ink temperature and, in water-borne applications, ink pH.

2. The lack of world class quality benchmarks

Similar to the way the Big Three compared themselves to each other, many companies in the printing industry are comparing themselves to their own past performance, underperforming competitors or in many cases, nothing at all.

3. Unnecessary fear of new capital investments

The attitude of the Big Three in the past seemed like, “why spend the money when we’re already doing so well?” While large capital investments like equipment for new plants or capacity expansions were still being made, it was the smaller, productivity improving investments that were easily overlooked. We have witnessed similar attitudes in the printing industry.

The Printing Industry Has Some Advantages

Obviously, one of the big differences between the two industries is that there is no Big Three in printing. There are literally hundreds of printers in North America while there weren’t hundreds of auto manufacturers. Additionally, we see the similarities in much of the printing industry, not across the board. Finally, we don’t yet see the equivalent of the Japanese auto manufacturers in the printing industry. There is no single force that will drive hundreds of printers out of the industry.

Call to Action

If you are looking for improvement opportunities or ways to inspire progress in your own facility, take a page from the recovering automotive industry and try the following:

1. Establish a “best-in-class” benchmark

It’s difficult to know how you are doing until you know how everybody else is doing. Information is available from trade organizations and trade publications. Seek out that information and raise the bar in your organization. It’s easier to rally people and actions around a known quantity or metric.

2. Join and become active in one or more trade organizations

We are fortunate to have several options in the printing industry. Seek them out and get people involved. There is probably no better way to become exposed to trends, new developments and productivity opportunities in your industry. Most people like to learn and to be engaged in new things. Find those people in your company and let them engage with a trade organization. These new ideas are productive and simultaneously inspiring and encouraging to those involved.

3. Experiment with a small capital investment

The Japanese auto manufacturers did not become so fiercely competitive by implementing a great improvement idea. They became the best by implementing several smaller improvements that over time had a huge impact. We attended INFO*FLEX sponsored by the Flexographic Technical Association and I can guarantee you, there is no shortage of opportunities to improve your printing operation. When people see the willingness to spend money, (even a little bit), to improve their productivity, it creates motivation to do more of the same. 

There is much opportunity to improve your productivity and to inspire progress in your company. It is a lot more fun to make it part of your culture intentionally than to have to do it for survival.

Download our free Process Excellence Diagnostic to more closely evaluate the operation costs, maintenance, overall performance, and product quality of your printing process.

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Topics: Viscosity

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