May 10, 2017 / best practices, continuous improvement, customer service, human capital, industry news, maintaining talent, productivity, skills gap
Based on expert forecasts and industry sentiment, the outlook for 2017 continues to be hopeful. As stated in LIT’s 2017 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook, metal fabricators and other industrial metal-cutting organizations are getting more and more optimistic about the near future, and recent market data looks promising.
While the latest outlook from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) expects “relatively sluggish” output growth for the manufacturing industry as a whole, the near-term forecast for Fabricated Metal Parts is positive. Specifically, MAPI forecasts that output growth for the Fabricated Metal Parts sector will register 1.8 percent in 2017 and 3.4 percent in 2018. In addition, March data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that both new orders and shipments of Fabricated Metal Parts were up 5.5 percent compared to 2016.
Recent data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) is also encouraging. As stated here in a press release, economic activity in the manufacturing sector expanded in April. According to the Manufacturing ISM Report on Business, 16 out of 18 manufacturing industries reported growth in April 2017, with the Fabricated Metal Products sector nearing the top of the list. In fact, one survey respondent from the Fabricated Metal Products sector stated, “Business is definitely improving. Profit margins are increasing.”
This type of optimism seems to be prevalent throughout the industry. The first quarter Fabricating & Forming Job Shop Consumption Report from Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA) revealed that 61.9 percent of metal fabricating managers and shop owners see improving conditions for the coming quarter and another 34.3 percent expect things to stay the same. A mere 3.7 percent expect things to get worse. “This is the most confident the sector has been in a while,” says Chris Kuehl, FMA’s economic analyst.
That’s not to say that fabricators don’t have some concerns. After attending FMA’s Annual Meeting in March, Kuehl reports here that he noticed three key trends among attendees, including:
1. Cautious optimism. According to Kuehl, most fabricators appear to be optimistic but many remain cautious. “The years of an administration that was at best ambivalent toward business and at worse downright hostile are over,” he writes. “There are definitely mixed opinions about what happens under Trump, but thus far the promises are looked upon as encouraging. That said, there is doubt that many of the promises will be kept because of fierce opposition from many quarters and lack of faith in Trump’s diplomatic skills. Still, there is hope that some of the big issues will get the attention deserved—trade patterns, regulation, and taxes at the top of the list.”
2. People will stay at the top of the list of worries. The manufacturing skills gap continues to be an issue for most fabricators, according to Kuehl’s analysis. “It is harder than ever to find the employees needed,” he says. “Manufacturers aren’t finding qualified and eager job seekers no matter what they offer to pay. The powers that be have not yet addressed this problem, and that is immensely frustrating.”
3. Concerns about the future. Even with some renewed confidence, Kuehl says that fabricators and manufacturers are still concerned about the future and whether the industry is ready for developments it hasn’t seen in over 10 years. “Interest rates will be higher for the first time in over a decade, and inflation will be rearing its ugly head sooner rather than later,” he writes. “Add in the ramifications of a trade war or two, and the concern many have expressed [is] that the progress seen thus far could come to a screeching halt.”
Even with some potential challenges ahead, most fabricators remain focused on growth. Over the last few years, automotive has been a huge growth market for fabricators, but some experts believe that sales are slowing and the market is stabilizing. However, as stated in a blog post from Branam Fastening, there is still plenty of opportunity for growth in the following customer segments:
- Construction. The non-residential construction market is expected to grow an additional 6% in 2017. Metal roofing, HVAC, steel supports, and other complementary building products will also see an increase in demand.
- Oil. The price for a barrel of oil is expected to exceed $60 in 2017. Many experts believe that once it surpasses this threshold, it becomes advantageous for domestic oil producers to reignite exploration and production operations. New pipelines, rigs, storage containers and other metal fabricated products are expected to be in greater demand throughout the industry in 2017.
- Electronics: The electronics industry is expecting a 3.1% positive bump in domestic production in 2017 and 5.3% growth in 2018. This paves the way for an increase in metal fabricated products like custom encasements.
- Infrastructure: Estimates predict infrastructure budgets to grow between $275-$500 billion over the next 5 years. A big part of this spending will comprise airport repairs and construction, road repairs, bridges, railways, new stations, and waiting platforms. Opportunities for metal fabricators can be found throughout.
A Bright Future
Does the future look bright for metal fabricators? According to MAPI, there are certainly “glimmers of light,” and recent data certainly reflects that assessment. However, preparation and continuous improvement should still be a top priority for fabricators. As stated in the white paper, Best Practices of High Production Metal-Cutting Companies, industry leaders need to remain focused on optimizing every aspect of their internal operations—regardless of market conditions—so they can be ready for whatever the future holds.
In what ways can you position your operation for growth in 2017?