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Summit’s focus: Help manufacturing thrive

SEVEN CYCLES

Seven Cycles, of Watertown, manufactures high-end bicycles.

Most people would not think of Boston as a center for high-ticket bicycle manufacturing. But most people don’t buy $7,000 bicycles.

That is the kind they make at Seven Cycles Inc. in Watertown, and business is good. The 27-employee company expects to sell about 1,500 bikes this year. “The momentum’s really building,’’ said chief financial officer Jennifer Miller .

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Seven Cycles is one of about 7,500 manufacturing companies in Massachusetts that make everything from massive data-storage systems to snowplows. These companies are enjoying a resurgence as the pulse of the economy quickens, manufacturers said, but they also face severe challenges, including tough international competition and a shortage of skilled employees.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, industry executives and academics met in an effort to devise better industrial technologies and train better prepared workers.

“Any society that aspires to a high standard of living has to be good at manufacturing,’’ said Donald Rosenfield, director of the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program, which sponsored the conference.

But the United States has been losing manufacturing jobs for decades. About 17.7 million Americans worked in factories in 1990, compared with 11.9 million today, according to the US Labor Department and Clemson University in South Carolina. Though much of the decline is because of improved technologies that reduce the need for labor, another big factor is the exporting of factory jobs to low-wage countries such as China.

But the tide may be turning. Rising wages in China and rising fuel costs are making offshoring much less appealing.

“I can’t tell you how many engineers have said to me, I hate having a passport full of visas to China,’’ said Rodney Brooks, a retired MIT professor who cofounded the robot maker iRobot Corp., of Bedford.

Brooks now leads a start-up called Heartland Robotics Inc., which aims to design simple, powerful robots to assist factory workers. Brooks said inexpensive robots could dramatically increase the productivity of American workers, making them more competitive with their lower-paid foreign counterparts.

To prosper as a US manufacturer, it usually helps to make sophisticated products that can’t be easily matched by unskilled workers. “It helps open the door to other large companies as well as international markets,’’ he said.

Curtis earned its certification with help from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a federal-state-private consortium that works to improve the performance of manufacturers. In today’s competitive markets, “nobody can keep producing the same product the same way,’’ said partnership director Jack Healy, so his agency helps small companies develop management techniques.

One challenge is labor. Despite the steep unemployment rate, manufacturing companies find it hard to land employees with the training needed for advanced manufacturing. And as skilled baby boomers retire, that problem is expected to get worse.

At the MIT conference, Diana Tremblay, chief manufacturing officer at General Motors Corp., said one problem is that an outdated image of factory work frightens away young people.

“There are some misperceptions out there that it’s kind of old-school,’’ she said, even though modern car factories are clean places with robots and other advanced technologies.

“Even MIT students have this view of auto [plants] as dirty and old and archaic,’’ said Cindy Estrada, vice president of the United Auto Workers union, ’’and this is not true today.’’

An MIT mechanical engineering professor, David Hardt, warned that flagging interest in manufacturing is a major reason so many industrial jobs have left the United States. “People want to do it more in other places,’’ he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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