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Sunday, 27 April 2014 22:00

Design adds to West Michigan’s economic security

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Design adds to West Michigan’s economic security COURTESY IMAGE

The broad capabilities of West Michigan’s design community help bolster the region’s economic resilience and strengthen its manufacturing sector.

That’s according to George Erickcek, senior regional analyst at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who studies local economic trends and fully endorses the concept of West Michigan Design Week.

In fact, as Erickcek sees it, designers could be even more important to the region’s strong manufacturing economy than the number of engineers based here.

“If you ask me, ‘Do you think a designer is more important than an engineer?’ the answer is yes,” Erickcek said. “I see designers as a means to keep manufacturing here. … My concern is keeping people employed. As long as we produce well-designed products in West Michigan, the 45-year-old mom of two kids will keep her job.”

In the current global economy, manufacturers cannot base their businesses around competing on price alone, he said. Having strong design capabilities is a way to hedge against becoming just another commodity producer.

“Your product has to be wanted by the customer, and design is about meeting the needs of the customer. The more you do that, the more you’re able to increase your margin on the price (of the goods) and make a profit,” Erickcek said. “It will take as many workers to produce a designed product or a non-designed product, but a designed product will have a longer life than one that’s just a commodity. And it’s not just a better price for a good, it’s about supporting neighbors in the community (through jobs).”

The ability of design thinking to bolster West Michigan’s manufacturing sector has more economic development groups paying attention to design, he said, citing The Right Place Inc.’s recent inclusion of design as a foundation of the region in its strategic plan. Southwest Michigan First in Kalamazoo also leveraged the region’s design strengths to attract Newell Rubbermaid Inc. to locate its design center at Western Michigan University’s Business and Technology Research Park.  

The next step, he said, is making more manufacturing CEOs aware of how to use design to their strategic advantage. Erickcek advocates companies aligning with the term “designed manufacturing” rather than advanced manufacturing because it better describes what companies in the region are doing.

“I would like to lead an effort to see us bury that term,” he said of advanced manufacturing. “I like to say ‘designed manufacturing’ as the brand for West Michigan. Our manufacturers are customer focused, they’re meeting future needs of customers. To me, designed manufacturing is a better term for the type of manufacturing we do here.”

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