Keeping Jobs in the State Key Topic in Regional Manufacturing Conference

Keeping manufacturing jobs in the Upper Cumberland will be a matter of big corporate strategies and attention to the smallest of details, according to participants at yesterday's manufacturing conference at Tennessee Tech University.

More than 30 companies sent representatives to the second Regional Manufacturing Excellence Conference to share strategies and ideas to help stem the loss of jobs totaling 43,000 over the last two years in Tennessee.

"We must convince manufacturers that new ventures are possible," said Ken Currie, director of TTU's Center for Manufacturing Research. "We have to focus our intellectual resources. And despite the discouraging loss of jobs, there is a great climate in this state for cooperation."

Presenter Srikanth Padmanabhan, plant manager of Fleetguard-Nelson Inc., outlined the corporate decisions that have to be made in the near future. He said the key to viability rests with a company's awareness of when a product is mature and has become a commodity -- a product that people purchase solely based on price.

"We must understand the product pipeline," he said.

He explained as some products are moved to other countries for cheaper labor costs, other new products that make use of the technical expertise and customer base close to home must be funneled into the company. That way, companies sustain the necessity for a local workforce.

While many of the conference's 30 sessions dealt with large issues, some, such as "25 Improvement Ideas for Under $250," offered participants immediate answers to production challenges.

Lisa Norris, president of The Transitions Group, catalogued ideas including the use of walkie-talkies, picture work instructions and "putting wheels on everything."

One of the more popular suggestions, one that has helped several regional companies, is the "5-Minute Meeting."

"The idea is based on the concept of the football huddle where employees are encouraged to gather daily for five minutes and give their input on the same seven topics," said Norris. "It's impact on efficiency is proven when people are allowed to communicate effectively."

Both Padmanabhan and Currie offered their view of the next 10 years in the state's manufacturing industries.

"Using joint venture partners to raise capital for new products will be essential," said Padmanabhan.

"Because of the climate and expertise, we have the opportunity to attract high-tech and bio-tech manufacturing, which must be a part of our future," said Currie.