April 1, 2017 / benchmarking, best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operations metrics, optimization, performance metrics, productivity, skills gap, supplier relationships
While no one would likely call it a “boom,” recent months have provided good news for industrial manufacturing. Reports have been positive, and business confidence among metal-cutting companies and other industrial manufacturers is up. Experts admit that some challenges and risks remain, but most believe that growth will continue in 2017 and well into 2018.
There is no question that uncertainty has plagued the manufacturing sector for the last several years. Hints of recovery followed by sluggish growth have made it hard for many companies to trust that business was fully rebounding. Last year, terms like “cautiously optimistic” were being thrown around, but many were still wondering — “Are we there yet?’”
Reports and forecasts indicate that we are at least heading in the right direction—both globally and within the U.S. The JP Morgan Global Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) has remained above the neutral 50.0 mark throughout the past 13 months and registered 53.0 in February and March—its highest level in 69 months. According to the bank, the expansion in March “remained broad-based by product type, with PMI readings for the consumer, intermediate, and investment goods sectors all signaling further solid growth.”
Forecasts from Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) also point to growth, although slower than some would like. According to the latest outlook, manufacturing growth is expected to be 1.2% in 2017 but then accelerate to 2.6% in 2018. Average annual manufacturing output growth is expected to be 1.5% between 2017 and 2020.
Recent data show U.S. manufacturing expanded in March, following a very strong February. The Institute for Supply Management Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) hit 57.2% in March, a 0.5 percentage point reduction from a record-setting 57.8% in February 2017. Of the 18 manufacturing industries, 17 reported growth in March, including Fabricated Metal Products and the Primary Metals industries. According to one survey respondent from the Fabricated Metals segment: “Regional business is strong. Hiring qualified team members has improved.”
Cliff Waldman of MAPI says that March data adds to mounting evidence that U.S. manufacturing output performance is on track for moderate improvement, relieving the factory sector from the sluggish growth that has plagued it since 2013. “Data on actual manufacturing output from the Federal Reserve are basically in sync with the recent ISM data as they show an acceleration of growth in U.S. manufacturing since the beginning of 2017,” Waldman said in a blog post. “However, the year-over-year improvement thus far is moderate. Nonetheless, the reasonably broad-based nature of factory sector growth in both January and February suggests growth stability.”
Business confidence among industrial metal-cutting companies and other manufacturers is also up. The first-quarter Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey from The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) revealed that manufacturers’ optimism rose to a new all-time high in the survey’s nearly 20-year history.
According to NAM, the rising confidence stems from the hope that the new administration in Washington, D.C. will bring much-needed regulatory relief, as well as tax code reforms and a significant infrastructure package. “Indeed, business leaders are cautiously hopeful that pro-growth policies from Washington will allow the country to emerge from the sluggish expansion seen in the years since the Great Recession,” the association said in the report.
Metal companies are confident as well. According to industry leader ArcelorMittal, global apparent steel consumption is estimated to have expanded by 1% in 2016. Based on the current economic outlook, ArcelorMittal expects global apparent steel consumption to grow further in 2017 by between 0.5% and 1.5%.
In the U.S., Mittal says that apparent steel consumption (ASC) declined in 2016 by approximately 1.0% to 1.5%, driven in large part by a significant destock in the second half of 2016. “However, underlying demand continues to expand and the expected absence of a further destock in 2017 should support ASC growth in the U.S. of approximately 3.0% to 4.0% in 2017,” the company said in its 2016 Annual Report.
Sentiment about customer markets is also positive. Mark Millett, president and CEO of Steel Dynamics Inc., told Modern Metals that he expects growth in the energy sector and continued growth in construction spending, “especially for larger public sector infrastructure projects.”
And although there have been reports that automotive manufacturing peaked in 2016 and will decline in 2017, metals companies don’t seem too worried. AK Steel told MM that a richer product mix, including the premium pricing that can be obtained on newer, more specialized or custom grades, should help offset declines. “Our volumes are going to be fairly stable, and fairly steady compared to what they were last year,” Kirk Reich, AK Steel president and COO, said in the MM article.
Trends to Watch
That’s not to say that companies don’t still have some concerns. In late January, M. Robert Weidner III, president and CEO of the Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI), urged the new Trump administration to take serious and immediate action to restore growth and to help the industrial metals supply chain fully recover from the lingering effects of the Great Recession and government policy.
“The industrial metals sector needs action now,” Weidner said, noting that service center aluminum shipments are registering 20 percent below their pre-Great Recession peak, and carbon steel shipments from service centers are still down 30 percent. “The erosion in the U.S. industrial metals supply chain hurts our communities; erodes local, state, and federal tax revenue; and reduces the pool of well-paying U.S. jobs,” Weidner continued.
The strong dollar and reduced capital spending are also concerns. “Signs of wide, yet modest, improvement in global growth are the key drivers of better performance in U.S. manufacturing,” Waldman of MAPI says. “Unfortunately, the problems of a high dollar, a long-term capital spending malaise, and significant policy uncertainty remain to challenge the magnitude of the U.S. manufacturing improvement, even as the world finally provides much-needed support for U.S factories.”
Many industrial manufacturers also remain risk averse. In a recent PwC survey, only 30 percent of U.S.-based industrial manufacturing senior executives said that their companies were planning to increase spending on information technology in the subsequent 12 months. “There is a remarkable opportunity here,” PwC says in a blog post. “Yet the industrial manufacturing sector remains risk averse, unwilling to spend on new machinery, software, and talent during a period of protracted slow growth and limited proven solution.”
According to PwC, there are six actions industrial manufacturers can take to be more profitable in 2017. You can read the full list here, but the following four strategies are the most applicable to industrial metal-cutting companies:
- Leverage data and analytics in a new business model. By upgrading their technical capabilities, industrial manufacturers can bundle a variety of services enabled by connectivity and data, replacing the increasingly outmoded model of selling one big complex machine under warranty and a service agreement for maintenance and repair.
- Develop strategic partnerships. Industrial manufacturers must become more active players in the technology ecosystem, seeking expertise outside the industry in order to develop equipment connectivity, data analysis, and software that are beyond their current abilities.
- Mine operational data. If connected machines—the primary components of the Internet of Things (IoT)—are to be the backbone of industry in the near future, industrial manufacturers will have to figure out how to manage the data coming from an avalanche of sensors, integrated equipment and platforms, and faster information processing systems. There is a critical need to hire people who can mine these bits and bytes of information and work more closely with customers to use the data to improve equipment performance and open new revenue streams.
- Create strategies for talent development and retention. industrial manufacturers must purposefully map out an exciting technology strategy with specific benchmarks and achievements anticipated for the next 18 to 36 months—and then communicate this story clearly to job candidates. Even companies that have not yet felt the shortage of technology-savvy staffers need to take steps to prepare for it as the number of job openings in this field will continue to outpace the number of available hires for the foreseeable future.
Of course, a major technology overhaul may not be possible for every shop, but there are always improvements that can be made. As stated in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, thriving in today’s market requires companies to embrace change and focus on continuous improvement in all areas of their business.
“Whether implementing a lean manufacturing tool to improve processes or investing in training to develop people, proactive leaders are focused on making positive changes in their operations so they can quickly respond to today’s changing customer demands,” the eBook states.
Yes, the sentiment among industry players and experts is positive, but that doesn’t mean companies should put improvement activities on the backburner. Industrial metal-cutting organizations that keep a close eye on mega trends while continuing to optimize their internal operations may not only do well in 2017, but exceed expectations.