Defining the Future of Manufacturing

Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) was founded in the interests of advocacy, outreach and innovation for the industry. This association brought together members who represent the agriculture and construction sectors in North America to define the future of manufacturing.
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Though AEM primarily represents manufacturers, both large and small, from agriculture and construction, its influence can be felt in utility equipment manufacturing, forestry and mining as well. Its members manufacture the equipment and technology that keeps the economy functioning effectively and profitably. Its members gain a competitive advantage through its policy advocacy at the state, federal and international levels, as well as its efforts to collect and analyze market data and establish customer connections.

Though its history goes back to 1894 with the establishment of a farm implements group, it was not until the early 2000s that AEM assumed its current form. At that time, the farm association and an organization representing manufacturers of construction equipment came together with a unified mission. “In 2002, the farm group and the construction group, as they moved forward, they got together and decided that they had so much in common that they formed what is AEM today,” explained AEM President Dennis Slater.

AEM moved from a group in which manufacturers could come together and network to an organization that would promote the industries and the products being manufactured as well as provide a forum for regulatory and technical issues to be addressed. Rather than duplicating efforts, AEM became a united front offering advocacy, customer connections, resources, market data and support.

It hosts numerous training and education sessions, conferences and tradeshows that foster innovation and promote the industry. One of the most well-known events is CONEXPO, CON/AGG. There was a great sense of optimism at the 2017 event which was held in Las Vegas in March. It was attended by 128,000 people, 26,000 of whom travelled from abroad. U.S. buyer attendance was up, as was sales activity and participation in the education sessions.

Innovative ideas and products were showcased, including an initiative called the technology experience. “What we did was, we brought out all the future ideas of what would it be like to work in construction in the next fifty years,” Slater said. “What kind of machines will do this work? What would a road look like? What would transportation look like?

“This tech experience created an atmosphere of the future of an industry, bringing together thought leaders out there to say this is what we really need to do to improve the economy and improve the infrastructure and have a better way of life in the U.S.,” he added.

It seems that, for AEM, the best way to shape the future is to anticipate it and envision what is possible. “We’re reaching out to the future and doing what we can today to practically aim towards it,” said Slater.

“Technology has allowed them to be much more efficient with production, the product and even other things such as energy. It requires less fuels, and they run cleaner now.” He cited the example of a Tier 4 engine that is one hundred times cleaner than engines of the past. This is both beneficial for the industry as well as the environment.

This future-minded thinking is the focus of many of its events and efforts, including Infrastructure Vision 2050 which has a long-term vision for infrastructure investment through leadership and inventive new ideas. AEM also hosts regional events called Thinking Forward.

“We do eight of them a year. We take vision thinkers with us and we go to places like Microsoft or the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and bring our members from the region there and talk about business disruption,” Slater said.

Slater acknowledged that having a forward-thinking approach makes AEM different from other industry associations. “We don’t just talk about our industry; we talk about business disruption, and what are the outside forces that happen outside of our industry in the world. What will these outside forces do to our industry? What would the impact be and how do we react to it? We get into issues like, ‘What will 3D printing do for manufacturing?’ or ‘What will Amazon do for supply chain?’ and you start to address issues that are bigger than just the industry. I think, too often, conferences in all industries just talk about their own industry,” said Slater.

In 2010, AEM also launched a grassroots advocacy program that has grown from a series of events in Washington to encompass a wide range of activities. “We go and visit our members with congressmen and women out there, bringing the senator and governor as well to explain the issues of our industry, not just to them but to their employees,” Slater explained.

“The employee looks at it as, ‘If it helps my company, I really should vote for candidates who support trade or candidates who support a good infrastructure or tax reform, because a healthy company will allow me to keep my job and be a part of this,’ where before, they really didn’t understand the connection between the political agenda and the health of their own company and jobs.”

AEM represents 975 members, some of which are the largest, most recognizable names in the industry. Its efforts encourage the creation of a policy environment that is conducive to the health and sustained growth of both industries.

On a policy level, its primary issues revolve around infrastructure, taxes, international trade and investment. Understanding that there are 1,272,393 manufacturing jobs nationally in the United States, the health of this portion of the economy is crucial to the country’s economic wellbeing. Another aspect of its advocacy work relates to workforce development, which remains a major concern of its members.

“These companies make the products that build everything in the country,” said Slater, referring to the construction side that builds everything from ports to dams. “Agriculture, they build the products that feed the world. You only have finite acres to grow on, so the idea is to get better at what you do,” he added.

This includes technology that helps to improve the efficiency and yield of farms such as computer-driven and GPS-driven equipment, as well as telematics and data-driven machinery on the construction side. The data gathered from these systems allows for scheduled maintenance and repair operations that keep equipment running efficiently.

AEM operates in accordance with a three-year strategic plan that is evaluated regularly in what are referred to as key result areas to ensure its initiatives are relevant. In 2018, AEM will remain focused on increasing member participation and advocacy at all levels of policy development, optimizing activities such as its tradeshows and events and strengthening leadership in both agriculture and construction to produce maximum results for its members.

Its members greatly appreciate the data provided by the association. In January 2018, AEM acquired the Minneapolis-based data analytics company Hargrove and Associates, Inc. which will help it provide an improved flow of market data.

“We have about one hundred employees total that work with us, and when I started thirty-five years ago, we only had fifteen people at that time. We did finite things like networking and simple market data spreadsheets, where today, it’s totally supporting these companies with huge tradeshows and market share reports,” reflected Slater.

It operates from headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where it has been based since the 1960s. There is an advocacy office in Washington, D.C., another office in Beijing, China and an increasing presence in Ottawa, Canada.

“We’re starting to expand to really understand what needs to be done to support our members across North America,” noted Slater. AEM understands that ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the U.S., which means trade agreements and policies that create a competitive and open market environment are paramount to its members’ success.

AEM also recognizes that it is not alone in its efforts to advance industry and its members. “We’re just one association with 100 people that represents these 975 companies, but there are so many other stakeholders in the industry,” said Slater.

“There is nothing that we don’t do that isn’t in partnership with the other stakeholders in the industry because then you create a bigger united front and you also touch base with everything from the manufacturer to those who use the machine. Partnership is a key part of what we do, and we love to collaborate with other associations,” said Slater, which is true to its founding.

Moving forward, one of its goals is to implement new membership categories, expanding its engagement activities to ensure the needs of its members are being met. In doing so, it will have even more of an impact than it already has.

“What worries me the most excites me the most,” said Slater. “It’s changing so quickly that we have to make sure our products respond to that change.” This responsiveness helps to foster healthy competition and innovation that will improve the wellbeing and success of its members, the industries and the economy as a whole.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

December 5, 2019, 5:09 PM EST