There’s a very old parable, thought to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, of six blind (or blind-folded) men asked to describe an elephant. They reach different conclusions depending upon which part of the elephant they touch:

  • Side – it’s like a wall
  • Leg – it’s like a tree
  • Trunk – it’s like a snake
  • Tusk – it’s like a spear
  • Ear – it’s like a fan
  • Tail – it’s like a rope

The point is that people have the tendency to project their partial observations to represent the entirety of something.  Each man was “correct” in their assessment, they just did a poor job of explaining the entirety of the elephant.

A similar challenge arises when trying to describe or characterize the role of manufacturing.  We use disparate data sources to see parts of manufacturing – Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census, International Trade Administration, National Science Foundation and the Federal Reserve Economic Data.  These data sources help us to remove our blind-folds and see a part of manufacturing more clearly.  But like the parable, taken alone they do not represent the entirety.  The more complete picture of manufacturing includes all these elements:

  • Manufacturing is the 6th largest employer
  • Manufacturing jobs reflect higher earnings
  • More than half of all exports are manufactured goods
  • Manufacturing consistently represents more than 10 percent of GDP
  • Manufacturing is the primary source (about two-thirds) of R&D

Like the elephant, U.S. manufacturing cannot be adequately explained through a narrowly focused observation and analysis, but by taking a broader look at the facts about manufacturing.


Facts About Manufacturing Infographic 2018



Nico Thomas photo

Nico Thomas

Nico Thomas is a Performance Analyst intern at NIST MEP, working with the Manufacturing Policy and Research Team to…
Steve Campbell Photo

Steve Campbell

Steve Campbell is an economist in the Manufacturing Research and Program Evaluation group with the Manufacturing…


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