Does Engineering Matter and is Free Trade Really Free?

A few years ago, a great deal of discussion was generated in the "business community" about a paper someone wrote which asked, "Does Information Technology Matter?" I am not sure about the details of that discussion, but I think it is time that we ask the same question about engineering. Or worse yet, we now need to ask, "Does Industry Matter?

Well, I believe the answer depends on the scope of the discussion. If the scope of the discussion is solving the needs of mankind in the 21st Century, I would say industry and engineering does matter. If the scope of discussion is enabling mankind to explore, understand, and utilize the fabulous universe that surrounds us, again I would say that the answer is yes, industry and engineering does matter. However, if the scope of the discussion is satisfying CEO's, investors, and the DemoRepublicats in the US government, then I am afraid that industry and engineering does not matter any more. So, unfortunately, in the real, day-to-day world most of us find ourselves, we don't matter.

Two developments of the last few decades clearly indicate that our "leaders" care little for us and what we do. These developments were "free trade" and "outsourcing". Of course, these concepts are shrouded in the smoke that rises from the incense-burning of the Federal Reserve druids. And, mortals that actually contemplate whether these concepts are good policy are subjected to ridicule from the MBA brotherhood. But, it is undeniable that these immaturely-implemented concepts ensure that what engineers do (and what mechanical engineers do in particular) will soon evaporate in the US. It may be "fighting progress" to want to keep manufacturing and related arts in the United States, but what if I like building cars? Or trains? Or planes? Or rockets? Or cranes? Am I stupid for wanting to do work on something I can actually see and touch? Staring at piles of coins, bills, and stock certificates just does not "do it" for me.

More importantly, what if in order for a nation to be great it MUST not only build stuff itself, but it has to be the best in the world at it? Certainly the history of the last few centuries shows that the most industrially advanced nations are the most great (at least in the economic and political sense). Where does that leave the concepts of "free trade" or "outsourcing"? These concepts are entirely intended to take away our industrial base. So since our "leaders" are wise in the ways of politics and economics, I can only conclude that they knew this was going to happen, and that they simply don't want us to be great any more. Even better for them, making the public think industry does not matter is probably the most efficient way for them to make sure we are unable to threaten their inflated sense of importance based on investors making a quick buck (as opposed to the old days when greatness was associated with doing great things).

For fun, let's assume (by some miracle) that the US government did care about our industrial "base". How exactly does "free trade" harm it? It's very simple. If we have no tariffs or other politically motivated barriers to restrict the flow of goods from poor or undemocratic nations, then eventually everything will be built over there. In the ‘Peoples Republic of the Walmart Supply Chain’ for instance, there is no EPA, no OSHA, no product liability, no lawsuits, no trial-by-jury-of-your-peers, no rule of law, no presumption of innocence, no freedom to preach in the village square, no popular elections, no NLRB, no Civil Rights Act of 1965, no EEOC, no Family Leave Act, no right to strike. In short, there is no overhead cost at all (unless you want to factor in bribes or the extra business trips to "taste" the night-life in Bangkok). There is simply no way for us to compete with state-owned entities that make sure no Yankee can even decipher "who owns what".

And, thanks to longshoremen and teamsters that won't honor their labor union brothers and sisters heading for unemployment lines in Detroit, trillions of pounds of products are swiftly taken from Korean-made and French-made ships to our doorsteps each and every day.

It's enough to make me wish for the days when quality was "job one". In fact, it now looks like the whole quality "craze" was just a diversionary tactic while the auctioneers sized up our factories for liquidators. The fastest growing car sales are from Korean (and soon Chinese) manufacturers that have documented quality issues, so I guess quality is more like "job three" (after price and making fashion statements). Its funny how CEO's demand six sigma quality from their US employees, but buy cheap, low quality stuff at the drop of a hat if it comes from an "up and coming" Asian country. After all, you don''t want to be the only CEO at the club whose not "in on" the latest nation-based procurement price momentum vector.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Let's just say that "free trade" eventually produces a trade surplus for the US as the other nation's costs rise as their living standard rises to meet ours. Does anybody know of an example where this actually happened? Please show me one single solitary example of this happening in the last 20 years based on a merchandise trade balance between the US and one former "third world" nation with more than 25 million in population. Just one, please.

For even more fun, let''s actually assume that "free trade" is a way to create a global prosperity-delivery machine that favors less developed nations with efficient (although dangerous) factories, and it favors the US with "high value added" activities such as finance, marketing, "brand" protection, and even engineering. Gotcha! Here comes outsourcing. So now even doing this "fun stuff" is going to be shipped out. Ask the CEO of IBM, GE, or HP if it can compete without using engineers from the former Soviet bloc or that large Asian sub-continent with tons of trade barriers to ensure local technology development? Come to think of it, China which is still Communist in every way politically is a much, much more important economic partner to the US than Russia which threw off the terrible, Satanic Communism. I wonder if Russia will regret that move, thanks to our greed-infested, unfettered raw capitalism.

Against these so-called "market forces" from the DemoRepublicats, I can only imagine one means of resisting and keeping at least a few cool jobs in the US. This would be intellectual property rights. Didn't the great global trade agreements (WTO, GATT, etc.) offer us great strides in this area? Countries will now respect our patent-type stuff. If I now come up with an amazing new invention that saves consumers tons of money, they will actually buy my expensive US product. All will be well again.

Sounds good, but there is no such thing as intellectual property rights in the very large socialist country West of Japan (as I was personally told by a patent attorney). Don't forget, there's no rule of law, no lawsuits, and no "transparency" there. You may get a non-disclosure agreement or a non-compete clause from Company A in that Asian place, but if all the people in Company A leave to form Company B, they can do anything they want, and the WTO means nothing. In fact, even intellectual property rights in the US do not prevent this trade secret stealing. I believe I am bound not to disclose trade secrets from one employer to the next based on something called the UCC or United Commercial Code (agreed to by the 50 state governments). This has nothing to do with intellectual property rights. Indeed, patents (which I normally think of as intellectual property rights) are a means to actually "disclose" inventions, not hide them. Do you think there is a UCC in Asia? If so, based on what evidence? If it is violated, what penalties are assessed?

Finally, even if patent-type laws did apply over there, there's more bad news. Governments don't enforce patent laws. You have to do it. You have to find infringement. You have to take the bad guys to court yourself. Do you think you are going to get on that Airbus European-made plane in New York City, get off in Shanghai, and walk into some lawyer's office and press a case against the lawyer's brother's crane company for patent infringement? I don't think so.

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  • Engineering matters where trade is free November 04, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Michael'
    Maybe you should hop on that European made Airbus and fly overhere, so you can find out for yourself how misinformed you are about the places you more or less describe as having no laws and so on. Don't believe everything you hear on U.S. television.
    Speaking as a 'Western' engineer who has gone where the jobs are, I have experienced firsthand what life is like and how business is done in one of the countries you talk about in such harsh terms. And it is not like you describe at all. Quite the opposite. Compared to the various 'Western' so-called free and democratic countries where I have lived/worked, I am now much more free, safe and able to do what I want, how I want, where I want and when I want.
    For example, if I want to start a business, I can be up and running tomorrow. There are some common-sense laws that I would have to comply to, but since they are common-sense laws and I have actually got a conscience, I'd be happy to. Things like getting staff, buying materials and selling products are all done based on free trade, i.e. if you don't like the price, don't buy it, or go to the (amply available) competition. The only parties involved are those who demand and those who supply. Try that in the U.S., or even better, in Europe. Good luck!
    Given this, Engineering does matter here. Engineering is one of the best ways to improve society (e.g. by building better houses, roads, hospitals, bridges, you name it) and to differentiate your products in the free market. There are, after all, more ways to sell products and make profit besides being the cheapest, muscling out all the competition or cooking the books.
    However, if a society chooses to support a system where nothing is more important than that a few billionairs becoming zillionairs, even if that means sacking everybody or killing people for profit, well hey, that society gets what it deserves. A little restraint could go a long way. Don't forget, the people in these 'Asian' and other countries are not stealing U.S. jobs, these jobs are offered to them by U.S. companies. Don't like it? Don't buy at WallMart!

      2 of 4 found this review helpful.
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  • Product Design and Engineering November 01, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Rolf'
    This article describes very well certain problems occurring in part of the western world, including the Netherlands from where I am sending this. Therefore I rated it with 4 stars. All of us have to go for 5 stars, however, and in my humble opinion I have some ideas which might contribute. Questions we need good answers to: what can we do, what should we do, what better way to deal with the situation than by our own (industrial) strength?

    Many say that we have to move from products to services. But even if this would be fully true, how do these services reach us? Most consumers wouldn't want to give up their flatscreen TV, laptop, iPod or mobile phone, which enable these services. So we do need products. Consumer needs, both known and latent, should be the primary driver for product development. If this fails, or the communication about it fails, then the story ends here. "Consumer" may of course also be a business, such as an airline, a retail shop, etc., etc.

    The next step is to realize the products. A trivial prerequisite is that it can be done with profitable business activity. The text below is quoted from experts and applicable to my field which I would best describe as design for product realization, specifically with plastics. The philosophy behind these quotes, however, is generally applicable in my view.

    * A multidisciplinary team is fully involved and committed from the earliest design stages until full-scale production and beyond (you need to have an answer to end-of-life issues too, regardless of your opinion about them).

    * During product design and development there will be detailed discussions between different team members, each of them entering others persons' fields of expertise: tear down those remaining walls between departments and between companies!

    * Stay up to date on new technological developments, innovative materials, etc., actively search for their (potential) benefits, translate these into product design opportunities, and then compare all alternative solutions before choosing. If you decide to stick to the old way, this decision should be based on such a comparison, and not on incomplete infomation or on the desire to avoid risks associated with new conceptions.

    * Tool making starts at the same time as product design (this is definitely needed for realization of plastics injection molded products, but the idea behind it should apply to other activities too).

    It is easy to list a few dozens of such quotes and I will gladly supply the sources to anyone interested. But do all industries work this way? Of course, no one ever said it will be easy, any change will appear to be disturbing, and errors are possible in a change process. If you don't want product development and manufacturing to move away from you, then make sure to offer a better alternative to the persons taking care of financing!

    I would welcome any critical comment on the above.

    Sincerely,
    Rolf

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  • engineers need to become nimble October 31, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Rachael'
    Great article. But it doesn't address a couple of key areas.

    Engineering, engineers are key. It does matter and here's why.

    Firstly, any country trying to compete on the global market has to have enough electricity to compete. This means that the country has to build the infrastructure to have enough electricity. And that means raw materials to create the electricity, or nuclear power - a commodity that is tightly controlled. Hold that thought:

    For 'western' engineers to survive I truly believe that each engineer needs to apply his (proven) problem solving skills in different directions - without waiting for the major employers, major corporations or government to give approval. I don't believe self-sustaining sources of energy will come out of an initiative by the government, nor from the fuel companies who right now are gaining yet larger profits quarter over quarter by keeping everyone reliant on fossil fuels. The innovations have to come from within - from engineers who set out to independently solve a problem. Engineers are some fo the coolest people on earth - give them a problem and they will work to solve it! So get savvy. get active and go out and solve your own problems - because no one else will do it for you.

    Preferably, invent a self-sustaining source of energy, so that those other countries can access electricity, and then we can have a truly global market where everyone is on an even playing field. Call me an idealist. I am. I also try to see reality and realize that waiting for 'permission', waiting for someone else to fix something, does nothing for the average 'you and me' in the street.

      2 of 2 found this review helpful.
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  • I agree but... October 27, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Hemanth'
    I think the gist of the argument is that engineering is taking a back seat when compared to profits. that may be true but isn't the comparison faulty? It is capitalism which enabled the rise of industrial and technological development and it is the same capitalism which is dictating todays trends. I think a mistake is being made when it is assumed that engineering growth in the late 20th century in US was solely driven by a quest for engineering excellence. The enterprise is basically looking for oppurtunities to fill a need and simultaneously be profitable. So events progress in such a way that the product of these two factors remain more or less constant. So make your conclusions..

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  • Free trade is really free when those who build .. October 27, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Joseph'
    Free trade is really free when those who build the best for the best price sell the most. We in the US, for instance with autos imosed trade restrictions in the early 80's at the same time we were building piles of junk with people who getting paid 27.00 hour plus exorbatant benifits for the consumer, consequently the Japanese easily came into this country and built actual quality autos with non-union labor and have done nothing but continue to kick our collective butts. Where are those of us designing gizillion mile per gallon cars here?

    Where are those of us designing non-military (and maybe even that is becoming questionable)
    consumer goods that are so overwhelmingly better than those coming in from overseas that people will buy them for the prices that are incurred here?
    Whining doesn't put food in ones mouth, work does.

    Joseph Crenshaw
    Mechanical Engr.
    Dallas, Texas

      3 of 3 found this review helpful.
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