Celebrity cheers on U.S. manufacturers

Editor Mark Rosenzweig discusses how an actor is drawing attention to thriving plants and the importance of manufacturing, in this month's From the Editor column.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Perhaps you remember Cliff Claven, postal worker and source of an endless stream of useless and often inaccurate trivia on the classic television series "Cheers." Well, John Ratzenberger, the actor who played Cliff, has taken on a far from trivial task — doing what he can to promote U.S. manufacturing.

I, for one, sometimes get into a funk about the decline of manufacturing here. For many products, it’s a challenge — and too often an impossibility — to find something U.S.-made. It’s not that I’m a chauvinist, that I think American products are inherently better. It’s just that I worry about the long-term impact of the country letting its manufacturing capabilities wither and am willing to do my small part to support U.S. plants.

Paul Studebaker, editor of our sister magazine Plant Services, reassures me that, while many plants have closed, there're still plenty of successful American manufacturers around. Indeed, that magazine annually bestows its "Survivor Plant of the Year" Award on facilities that beat the competition because of the quality of their products or their production efficiencies or innovations. The 2007 winner, just announced, is a resurgent pulp and paper mill in the Northern highlands of Wisconsin (see the story here).

Ratzenberger hosts the Travel Channel's "Made in America" series. That television program, which debuted in 2003, now has pointed up the prowess of more than 200 companies, ranging from Airstream, a producer of trailers for cars, to Zippo, the lighter maker. (For a complete list of companies, click here.) Each segment focuses on what's involved in production, and showcases not only the technology but the skills of the people involved.

A number of sites that rely on chemical engineering unit operations, including an Anheuser-Busch brewery, a Benjamin Moore paint plant, and a production unit for the over-the-counter pain killer Tylenol, have been featured. However, no chemical plants have gotten the star treatment yet and no visits to such plants are in the works, says a show spokeswoman.

Many chemical plants undoubtedly offer compelling stories about their operations and competitiveness. That's why we launched the Plant Innovation Award. (See details about this year's winner.) It would be great to see such a plant on "Made in America," It's not out of the question — the program's Web site solicits suggestions for products and plants to cover. So, think about letting the show know about a worthwhile candidate.

Speaking of candidates, in mid-October, Ratzenberger launched a new push. In association with the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group supported by companies such as U.S. Steel as well as the United Steelworkers union, he is hosting a series of "Keep it Made in America" town hall meetings in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states — with the upcoming presidential primaries and caucuses clearly in mind. These sessions aim to get voters to demand answers from candidates on manufacturing-related issues, such as how they propose to strengthen the U.S. manufacturing base and save manufacturing jobs. Those questions certainly demand more attention than the little they've gotten so far.

Ratzenberger's efforts on behalf of manufacturing deserve our cheers.

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