Our “Best of Manufacturing 2018” coverage begins next week in our last issue of year. It’s a beginning and not an end as we also open nominations for the fifth annual Colorado Manufacturing Awards this month that culminate April 4, 2019, when we announce winners.

We’ll talk plenty about the CMAs in the coming weeks. But in these final days of 2018, and before we reveal the companies that left us impressed, surprised, and in awe, here’s a year-end observation about the state of manufacturing in Colorado and the western U.S., through the lens of 236 company profiles and nearly 100 in-person interviews at executive roundtables: Its differences define it and make it great.

Here’s another: Its challenges are equally formidable, and unless manufacturing comes together to solve problems like workforce development, we may be at high point. It’s a pivotal moment.

It’s no exaggeration to say that what’s happening on the shop floors of manufacturers in the West is revolutionary. We read about it every week. Here, manufacturing is shaped by progressive consumers and the tech-fueled R&D ecosystems of the region. It’s about local food production and small-scale contract manufacturing. It’s about OEM supply chains, not OEMs. It’s about emerging markets in new consumer product categories, and companies challenging conventional wisdom relating to where and how products are made. It’s a dizzying mix of innovation and commerce. It’s a compelling story that’s pushing manufacturing into the mainstream economic conversation in the West.

Manufacturing’s different look here also creates challenges. Our understanding of whether manufacturing is important is shaped by other places, other regions with rich industrial legacies. Manufacturing in the Midwest is a way of life, a powerful, singular economic force. In Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, expectations are that manufacturing should comprise 15 to 20 percent of employment and an even higher percentage of GDP. When they struggle to do that, like now, communities teeter on an edge. And issues like GM moving production to Mexico or China become outsized and enormously important.

Manufacturing comprises about 7 percent of employment in Colorado, all industries combined. By those measures Colorado and the West underperform. Does it matter?

In the competition for resources, for employees, for infrastructure — yes, perception matters. It’s why manufacturing’s challenge in 2019 is to overcome the differences that make it great, and unify in pursuit of the means to make it grow.

Examples are plentiful. Contract and industrial manufacturers need consumer and lifestyle brands to help change the perception of a manufacturing career. To remain local and true to their mission, food brands need a thriving, transformative ag-tech sector to power the next generation of local growers and suppliers. Innovation coursing through the aerospace and aviation supply chain is desperately needed in the outdoor industry, or manufacturing jobs for products designed here by companies located here will stay elsewhere.

As 2018 winds down, it’s accurate to write that the state of manufacturing in Colorado and the West is strong. But more than that, it’s codependent. Manufacturers can come together to solve their challenges. Let’s just say collaboration is a work in progerss.

Celebrating the best of the sector across multiple industries, as we do next week and well into 2019, is part of the solution. We look forward to telling more captivating stories of the companies leading manufacturing to the next level.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at btaylor@companyweek.com.