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2016 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook

April 1, 2016 / , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Although many hoped that 2016 was going to be a year of full recovery and growth, expansion in the industrial manufacturing sector has been slow moving. High inventory levels, a strong dollar, falling commodity prices, and a slowdown in China have left many industrial metal-cutting companies disappointed and more than a little cautious.

Slow Growth
Evidence of slow growth started at the end of 2015. According to estimates from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI), manufacturing industrial production was unchanged from the third to the fourth quarter of 2015. Monthly data has shown erratic patterns of growth and decline that have pretty much cancelled out any movement forward—a trend that is expected to continue.

“We expect the volatility to continue through the first half of 2016, a situation that will result in essentially no manufacturing production growth,” MAPI stated in a recent report. “Manufacturing production should be flat in the first and second quarters of 2016 before accelerating to a 3-percent annual rate in the second half of 2016.”

For the entire year, MAPI expects manufacturing production to decelerate rather than accelerate compared to 2015. “Production increased 2 percent last year, and we forecast only 1.1-percent growth in 2016,” MAPI states. The good news is that MAPI predicts growth in industrial manufacturing of more than 2 percent for both 2017 and 2018.

Unfortunately, the forecast for steel demand also shows little to no growth, although 2016 is expected to be an improvement over 2015. According to the Short Range Outlook 2015-2016 from the World Steel Association (worldsteel), global steel demand decreased 1.7 percent in 2015 but is expected to grow by 0.7 percent in 2016.

“It is clear that the steel industry has, for the time being, reached the end of a major growth cycle which was based on the rapid economic development of China,” Hans Jürgen Kerkhoff, chairman of the worldsteel Economics Committee, said. “Combined with China’s slowdown, we also face low investment, financial market turbulence, and geopolitical conflicts in many developing regions.”

The only bright spot is that steel demand in developed countries is expected to show positive growth of 1.8 percent this year. The U.S. in particular should see demand increase by 2 percent in 2016, worldsteel predicts.

Realistic Expectations
While no one wanted the year to start off slow, most manufacturers aren’t too surprised. In a roundtable discussion with Metal Center News (MCN), Michael Bush, a vice president at Esmark, Inc., was quoted as saying that he didn’t expect the market to pick up until at least May. “Even though it will pick up in the second half, we expect 2016 to be down 1 percent for the year,” Bush told MCN. “That’s our general feeling going into the market.”

Bush isn’t alone. The American Metals Market annual survey of metals executives showed that 30 percent of respondents in the steel, aluminum, and other metals sectors expected business to be worse in 2016, and 70 percent predicted that the domestic economy would not fully turnout until 2017 or later. (You can read the full report here.)

The reality is that the U.S. is still in the middle of an economic recovery, which means that metal-cutting companies and other manufacturers won’t likely see any major growth this year. According to MAPI, manufacturing industrial production must grow another 3 percent in order to reach the pre-recession production level achieved in the fourth quarter of 2007, which means a full recovery is expected in the third quarter of 2017. Non-high-tech manufacturing production is 5 percent below the prerecession level and will not be fully recovered until the third quarter of 2018.

On a positive note, the latest numbers from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) show some improvement. As reported by Plant Engineering, ISM’s monthly Purchasing Manufacturers’ Index (PMI) jumped 2.3 percentage points in March to 51.8 percent, putting the index solidly above the 50-percent growth threshold for the first time in 2016.

Out of 18 manufacturing industries, ISM says that 12 reported growth in March, including Fabricated Metal Products and Primary Metals. One survey respondent from the Primary Metals segment stated, “Our business is still going strong.” Another respondent from the Fabricated Metals Products segment said, “Capital equipment sales are steady.”

The big question, of course, is will this momentum continue? Analysts believe that continued growth will depend largely on continued strong employment because it creates new income growth and a solid base of consumer spending. MAPI says that another impetus is easy credit availability, which propels big-ticket spending for motor vehicles, residential housing, and nonresidential construction.

Moving Forward
While the overall data is certainly sobering, there are a few signs that suggest the metals sector can still snap out of the lull. As Modern Metals recently reported, “The average age of a vehicle on the road still exceeds 10 years; construction season is coming and Congress passed a long-term highway bill in December.”

Metal executives participating in MCN’s roundtable believe that automotive—which is predicted to top 17 million vehicles this year—will be the big market driver, as well as residential and nonresidential construction, white goods, and anything associated with “green energy.”

A report from Fabricating & Metalworking says that surviving 2016 will require manufacturers to use the current market conditions to their advantage. “U. S. manufacturers should be aggressive to take advantage of falling costs while at the same time finding new opportunities created by these economic forces,” the report says. Specifically, the article states that companies should consider employing two key strategies:

From an operations standpoint, continuous improvement activities will continue to be critical for industrial metal-cutting companies as they push through this slow period. Finding ways to optimize what is happening inside your shop doors is perhaps one of the most effective ways to balance the uncertainty of what is happening outside your doors. What does that look like? An eBook from the LENOX Institute of Technology’s lists five performance-boosting best practices that can help metal-cutting companies improve internal operations:

  1. Get lean. Although lean manufacturing is not a new movement, it is evolving. Companies that “got lean” years ago are focusing on continuous improvement, and a growing number of high-mix, low-volume operations are tweaking traditional lean methodologies to fit their specific situation. Regardless of your organization’s size, lean manufacturing should be at least part of your operational strategy.
  2. Invest in human capital. Industry data indicates that metal executives tend to invest in technology over people, but the tide is changing as the manufacturing industry deals with a serious shortage of skilled production workers. Managing this skills gap will require changing the way companies train and maintain talent, whether by beefing up training programs or rethinking their hiring tactics.
  3. Focus on quality as a process. There is no question that speed and agility are critical in today’s fast-paced market, but managers need to make sure that meeting demand doesn’t come at the expense of accuracy. To meet this challenge a growing number of market leaders are putting practices in place to ensure that their quality goals are met and maintained.
  4. Embrace preventative maintenance. In almost every manufacturing operation, machine breakdowns are one of the top causes of lost productivity. While some downtime is inevitable, proper maintenance and proactive care of equipment and tooling can reduce its occurrence. One benchmark survey revealed that 67 percent of industrial metal-cutting operations that follow all scheduled and planned maintenance on their machines also report an upward trending job completion rate.
  5. Form strategic supplier relationships. In today’s competitive marketplace, it is easy to base supplier relationships on price. However, a growing number of manufacturing leaders are placing more value on their supply chain. By leveraging the knowledge and services of trusted suppliers, companies can turn vendor relationships into strategic partnerships that have a real impact on the bottom line.

Ready and Waiting
All things considered, 2016 won’t likely be a banner year for industrial metal-cutting organizations. However, not all hope is lost. Recent upticks in manufacturing may indicate some positive (albeit slow) momentum, and many experts believe growth is in the long-term future, even if we have to wait another year. Until then, metal-cutting companies can continue to apply strategies that address external trends while also improving internal operations, putting them in the best position possible when the market finally turns around.