Philip Shapira motivates manufacturers for a new century

Philip Shapira works with small and medium sized manufacturing companies to keep their people and their processes innovative. | Philip Shapira

As a teenager in London, Philip Shapira watched manufacturing evolve from the shop floor of Semnat Glass Works, a company that employed his father, grandfather, and uncles for decades.

“There was a little bit of automation in the factory, but it was not comprehensive and it was not integrated. Looking back now, I see that there are so many things they might have done that they didn't,” Shapira said.

He witnessed the end of an era. That glass company was one of many producers in London that went out of business in the early 1970s. Now, as a professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Professor of Management, Innovation and Policy with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research in the UK, Shapira’s focus is aimed at making sure small and mid-sized manufacturing companies don’t meet the same fate.

“Manufacturing is something that is continually evolving. But not all companies are evolving at the same time. Whilst a small number of them are high-growth, high-tech companies, the vast majority are much more conservative, a bit risk averse, and can be a bit slow to adopt modern approaches,” he said.

Shapira has been named an AAAS Fellow for distinguished contributions to science, technology and innovation policy, particularly for contributions to improved understanding of effective means of modernizing manufacturing.

While many of his peers headed straight for Silicon Valley in the 1980s, Shapira skipped ahead to the future.

“What I realized, in the 1980s, (was) that California is the largest manufacturing state in the U.S., with a lot of heavy industry; steel, automotive, aerospace; and mechanical industries like shipbuilding. It was going through this incredible phase of restructuring,” he said.

So he opted to focus on research and analysis in the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in Washington, D.C., where, at the time, OTA provided members of Congress with evaluations of scientific and technical issues.

Today he provides expert advice directly to companies, encouraging them to upgrade product development and training in order to increase their chances of surviving.

Shapira says that, once lost, manufacturing sectors are not easily replaced. So he and Georgia Tech colleague Jan Youtie identified some key factors in “high impact” interactions in the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership. They involve both a personal touch from the technology and innovation advisory team, and a capacity for change by company managers.

Shapira says there’s no standard approach to keeping a company vibrant. But companies have to be open and agile enough to adapt to modifications suggested by outsiders, such as his researchers. 

“From time to time, I have gone out with them and observed. … In some cases companies don't train sufficiently. They don't pay as well as they could so their workers kind of come and go. So they might have one job, but they might have two or three people cycling through the job in a year or two. So a good strategy would be to train and invest, to help upgrade the jobs; maybe make the jobs more attractive,” he said.

“People who start now are going to have at least six or seven careers; not just job changes, careers!” he laughed. “There is a lot of movement.”

Sometimes though, too much stability can lead to a company going stale.

“One of the pillars of the traditional Japanese model was employment security. That did create an environment where companies were very willing to invest in their workers, because they knew they wouldn't leave. But it may have gone too far. It led to rigidities in those companies, difficulty bringing in new ideas and new technologies,” he said.

In the U.S., manufacturing is seeing an upgrade in its image. Some people still view a four-year college degree as more valuable than a technical degree. But the massive debt accumulated at universities, with no guarantee of a good job, has made technical training much more attractive.

Shapira works with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University to plan for the future of manufacturing, from quantum and green technology to synthetic biology.

 “A lot of the work in synthetic biology is about replacing petrochemical materials; which emit carbon gases which we know we have to change; and replace them with biological materials.  And if we can make those materials from renewable energy we can have the equivalent of the plastic products in cars, furniture, and packaging, but in a much more ecological way. That's the promise,” he said.

Shapira says it’s probably going to be another generation before those changes in materials.

“Our role in academia is always to push the envelope a little bit; come up with different ideas. Some work, some don't, in my work in policy, we sort of test them,” he said.

He’s a big believer in collaboration.

“I try to develop networks across the campus; we have something called the Innovation Co-Lab which is a collaboration between Georgia Tech, Manchester, and the Beijing Institute of Technology. It also involves institutions in Russia and other locations. I’m quite willing to share papers and information; I think by sharing, you get things back,” he said.