Decoding Design

U.S. manufacturers' strengths and future are their creativity, survey shows

U.S. manufacturers' strengths and future are their creativity, survey shows

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A new survey of top U.S. manufacturing executives shows that creative thinking may be America's edge, now and in the future.

A new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit on the future of manufacturing suggests how successful design-thinking and creativity--and the protection of original ideas--are what give the United States an edge over the rest of the world.

The report, sponsored by General Electric, was released on October 18 and available online as a PDF. It also indicates what sectors hundreds of senior executives at U.S. manufacturers believe represent future growth for American companies within the next few years. Smart design and innovation firms and corporate designers would be wise to note these for potential opportunities.

In August 2011, the Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 360 senior executives from manufacturing firms in a wide spectrum of industries on the state of manufacturing in America and how it may evolve. All respondents are based in the U.S., although 10% work for companies headquartered outside of the U.S. Forty-two percent of respondents are board members or C-level executives, including 96 CEOs. While the survey was not design-centric, the report includes several relevant points for designers, design firms, and students focusing on design and design-thinking:

- According to those surveyed, the three greatest assets the U.S. manufacturing industry has over emerging markets are high quality products (61%), innovative processes (39%), and the protection of intellectual property (37%). These results suggest that top executives value the original design of durable, well-functioning objects and inventive improvements to factory operations (and the U.S. patent system that protects these) and see these as competitive advantages.

- The sectors with the greatest growth opportunities for American manufacturers in the next three years are: Green tech (selected by 43% of respondents), energy (42%), high-tech (42%), and pharma/biotech (37%).

- Those executives surveyed say their companies are investing in research and development efforts even in the downturn. Thirty-three percent said they are investing "substantial" time and money in R & D; 22% responded that they spend "a lot of" time and money in R & D. Among high-tech, green-tech, and biotech/pharmaceutical manufacturers, that number jumps to 64%. These figures could help designers and design firms assess where new opportunities for their services may lie (in the latter list).

- When asked how American manufacturers can boost innovation levels within their companies, 38% of respondents said they can do so by encouraging internal innovation competitions and initiatives; 34% said by promoting advanced manufacturing initiatives; 32% said by restructuring manufacturing processes. What these statistics suggest is top executives believe that nurturing and rewarding creative thinking could be a more valuable strategy for successful innovation than merely pursuing the latest manufacturing technology or cost-cutting/streamlining current programs.

Image: Rohit Rath/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure