After almost a week away from my family during FABTECH, Nov. 14-17, I returned to my family tired but upbeat, because the overall mood at the tradeshow was optimistic. Busy is good for most of the attendees and exhibitors.
In describing some of the stories I had been hearing about busy job shops and the need for new capital equipment investments, I encountered a question that stumped me a bit: "Why is metal fabricating doing well when the rest of the economy is not?" my wife asked.
It's a great question because it brings up two interesting points. First, most people don't realize that manufacturing is leading the way in this less-than-robust economic rebound following the Great Recession. Some are learning that a job in manufacturing may not be such a bad career path, especially as manufacturers continue to ask for more skilled workers to fill open positions. Second, manufacturing generally isn't in this position. The old adage goes that manufacturing is typically the first industry hit by a recession and the last one to emerge from it. Well, that's not how it's working this time.
So how did I reply? I told her, "I think metal fabricators are making things that people need—stuff that the world needs to function."
That's not an observation based on scientific findings, but I feel pretty confident about it. Look at Caterpillar as an example. As more developing nations grow their economies and help to raise the standard of living for their citizens, they demand more energy and goods. Raw materials are needed to feed that demand, and that's going to happen only with equipment to extract those materials from the ground.
This new middle class emerging around the world also needs to eat. That requires agricultural equipment to farm the fields and food processing equipment to make the crops suitable for the dinner table.
And it doesn't end there. The military continue to spend money with the goal of modernizing equipment (although this may not be a long-term trend given the official end of the Iraq conflict). Investment in infrastructure improvements may not be at the levels needed to support 21st century commerce, but money is still being spent to hold roads and bridges together; that requires equipment. Even in the area of retail, which would seem to be a wasteland of opportunity for metal fabricators because of sharp drops in consumer spending, stores still invest in racking and displays to encourage shoppers to part ways with their hard-earned cash.
Consumer electronics, metal furniture, toys—all are nice to have, but not necessary to live. A lot of those types of items also happen to be made overseas.
The story of how U.S. metal fabricating got to this point is filled with negatives—layoffs, offshoring, and consolidation. However, these hardships have led to a manufacturing base that is incredibly lean and competitive with most of the world. That bodes well for the future, especially as manufacturing looks to rebuild its image.
If you are interested in joining other metal fabricators to discuss issues like this and to compare notes, please consider attending The FABRICATOR's Leadership Summit, Feb. 29-March 2, in Scottsdale, Ariz. You won't be disappointed. For more information, visit www.fmanet.org/training/MetalMatters/metal-matters.cfm.