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Can Lego lead the way to manufacturing renaissance?

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  By Rick Nelson, Executive Editor, May 7, 2012

Is the U.S. economy poised for a boom? Perhaps, if you are willing to wait a decade. Two trends—increasing energy production and a forthcoming manufacturing recovery hold significant promise, according to David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post. I  am particularly interested in the second, manufacturing, trend, and seemingly so too are students at Auburn University, who are sharpening their industrial prowess in what is the only manufacturing lab of its kind in the country, according to Tom Devall, director of automotive initiatives at Auburn's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Ignatius begins his Post column noting that "America is likely to become by 2020 the world’s No. 1 producer of oil, gas, and biofuels—eclipsing even the energy superpowers, Russia and Saudi Arabia." He continues, "Energy security would be one building block of a new prosperity. The other would be the revival of U.S. manufacturing and other industries." The revival, he says, would be driven in part by the low cost of electricity in the United States, which is predicted to remain "…relatively flat through the rest of this decade, and one-half to one-third that of economic competitors such as Spain, France, or Germany."

Ignatius cites a March 2012 study by Boston Consulting Group that forecasts a reshoring back to America of manufacturing that once moved offshore. Referring to its March study, BCG notes, "The United States has been losing factory jobs for so long that many observers have all but written off manufacturing as a meaningful part of America’s economic future. The mass exodus of production following China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) deepened this pessimism. But the tide is starting to turn."

The consultancy cites an earlier study from August 2011, which "… explained how rising wages and other forces are steadily eroding China’s once-overwhelming cost advantage as an export platform for North America. By around 2015, we concluded—when higher U.S. worker productivity, supply chain and logistical advantages, and other factors are taken fully into account—it may start to be more economical to manufacture many goods in the U.S. An American manufacturing renaissance could result."

In a summary of the March study, the firm writes, "The economic impact would be significant," adding $20 billion to $55 billion in output annually to the domestic economy. The firm goes on, "We estimate that the relocation of manufacturing from China, combined with increased exports due to improved U.S. competitiveness compared with Western Europe and other major developed markets, will directly and indirectly create 2 million to 3 million jobs in the U.S., reduce unemployment by 1.5 to 2 percentage points, and lower the nonoil-related merchandise deficit by 25 to 35 percent. In fact, given the many changes sweeping the global economy, we believe our estimates are conservative."

Students at Auburn are preparing for a manufacturing renaissance, honing their industrial prowess using Lego blocks, believe it or not. As Sally Credille of Auburn writes, "Lego sculptures have entered our shared cultural experience, whether they are created by a 3-year-old building his first space ship, or a serious artist using millions of blocks to create a one-of-a-kind installation on a grand scale."

And now, she continues, "At Auburn University, Legos are being used to design and build vehicles, but with a twist. These vehicles can be produced at a rate of 70 cars per hour in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering's new automotive manufacturing systems laboratory, located on the ground floor of the Shelby Center."

The students build three models: a 278-piece speedster, a 254-piece SUV, and a 231-piece Baja car. The process requires 18 students, 15 for assembly operations and three for material delivery.

Devall, the automotive initiatives director at Auburn, says, "The lab emulates an automotive assembly plant and is designed to support operations at a high volume, similar to automotive manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda."

The students become familiar with real-life manufacturing operations, and they must understand the interdependence of all elements, from material receipt to delivery. They make use of robotics, programmable-logic-controlled conveyors, electronic vision inspection systems, and automated storage and retrieval of raw stock inventory, and Devall can train them to program systems and learn the preventative and predictive maintenance.

"We have installed all of the best manufacturing practices to provide students experiential learning," Devall said. "We are modeling the Toyota production system, or lean manufacturing, which has transformed the global auto industry. Our students will be well versed in these tools and systems, better preparing them for jobs in the automotive manufacturing industry."

The Lego connection suggests that even younger students might be able to use a similar approach to learning about manufacturing, and indeed, Devall says, "The lab could become a blueprint for a larger regional initiative and network involving K-12 schools, two-year colleges, and four-year universities, as well as industry and government."


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