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2014 Trends Affecting Forges that Cut and Process Metal

April 28, 2014 / , , , , , , , ,


For most of the industrial metal-cutting industry, things are staring to look up. Earlier this month, the World Steel Association released its Short Range Outlook for 2014 and 2015. The forecast projects that global apparent steel use will increase by 3.1% in 2014 and by 3.3% in 2015. Regional projections are also positive. While the U.S. showed a decrease of -0.6% in apparent steel use in 2013, the global association forecasts that apparent steel use in the U.S. will grow by 4.0% in 2014 and by 3.7% in 2015.

However, even with its positive forecast, World Steel expects continued volatility and uncertainty to create a challenging environment for steel companies this year. And many metals executives are feeling that uncertainty. As stated in LIT’s 2014 Outlook for Industrial Metal-Cutting Companies, most industrial metal-cutting companies are only cautiously optimistic about today’s market.

This is especially true of many forging industry executives, who were encouraged by sales increases in 2012, only to be disappointed with no growth and some decreases in 2013. Specifically, the Forging Industry Association (FIA) reports that total industry shipments for the custom impression die forging industry were at $7.313 billion in 2013, down slightly from $7.337 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, 2012 total industry shipments by the custom open die forging industry were 15% below 2012, and shipments for the custom seamless rolled ring forging industry were basically flat. (You can view FIA’s final sales data here.)

As forging executives move into the second quarter, there are some trends unfolding in 2014 that they should be watching closely.  A recent column from IndustryWeek does a good job of describing five higher level trends that are affecting most of the manufacturing industry. These include the following:

On an operations level, there is perhaps one prevailing trend—the relentless push for continuous improvement. In an uncertain market, operations managers are realizing they have no choice but to optimize and become more agile. In some cases, this requires capital investment, but many industry leaders are discovering alternative ways to improve operations. LIT’s benchmark study of industrial metal-cutting companies, for example, identifies three key areas where managers can make improvements without adding new capital expense:

Of course, there is no crystal ball for what 2014 will bring, and as the last few years have taught manufacturing executives, nothing is ever certain. In the end, the key will be for forging companies to strategically consider industry trends (i.e., smaller orders), while also proactively improving what is happening inside their doors.

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How Machine Shops Can Make the Cut in 2014

April 20, 2014 / , , , , , , , , ,


Here’s the good news: Data continues to show that 2014 will likely be a year of growth. Gardner’s most recent metalworking business index (MBI), for example, showed that conditions in the metalworking industry expanded in March for the third straight month and the fourth time in five months. According to Modern Machine Shop, this was the fastest rate of growth since March 2012. Additional MBI findings revealed positive trends in several key business areas, including new orders and production, capacity utilization and spending, employment, and supplier deliveries. You can read the full report here.

All of this good news, however, comes with some uncertainty. As reported in LENOX Institute of Technology’s (LIT) 2014 outlook, most metals executives are only cautiously optimistic about the near-term future. Political issues, pricing pressures, and talent shortages are issues weighing heavily on industrial metal-cutting companies, leaving executives with no choice but to focus on continuous improvement as they attempt to strategically approach a shaky marketplace.

For machine shops, taking the time to make improvements is a challenge in itself, especially if business is starting to pick up. However, leading-edge shops know that in today’s demanding market, optimization is the only way to stay competitive. In other words, they are making time.

While you may not have the resources to undergo a major improvement initiative in 2014, the following are two key trends today’s machine shops need to consider:

To read more about trends we expect to see in 2014, check out LIT’s 2014 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook.

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Key Trends for Metal Service Centers in 2014

April 5, 2014 / , , , , , , , , , ,


As the industry heads into the second quarter, uncertainty remains. In fact, as we state in our 2014 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook, uncertainty may be the only thing that is certain right now.

Like most sectors of the metal-cutting industry, metal service centers have experienced little if any growth in 2014. January started off with a much-needed improvement over December, with small increases in shipments and reduced inventory levels. However, February wasn’t as strong as many had hoped. According to the latest figures from the Metal Service Center Institute, U.S. service center steel shipments in February 2014 increased by 0.4% from February 2013, and 2014 year-to-date steel shipments increased by 0.2% from the same period in 2013. When looking at total volume from January to February, service centers’ shipments of steel and aluminum actually declined, reports IndustryWeek.

In other words, we aren’t quite there yet. Experts like the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) are hopeful that the rebound is coming, but until then, there are several industry trends that we feel will be key for metal service centers in 2014. Here are a few to keep in mind:

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2014 Industrial Metal Cutting Outlook

March 30, 2014 / , , , , , ,


Steel has a rich history in America and around the globe. It has often been called both the backbone of manufacturing and the building block of society—and rightly so. We rely on steel in many industry sectors, including automotive, aerospace, infrastructure, and consumer durables. The health of our sector is critical to the economy, as well as the quality of life that many of us enjoy.

As a global company that services the industrial metal-cutting industry, we at LENOX Tools have a unique vantage point of what is happening within the larger metals market. We have watched some companies barely survive these last few years, and we have also seen leaders rise to the occasion. And while there is still a lot of uncertainty within the marketplace, we are confident that with the right tools, 2014 can be a year of opportunity for many of our customers.

Cautiously Optimistic
According to the Steel Manufacturers Association, the short-term prospects for the steel industry are no more certain in 2014 than they were in 2011, 2012, or 2013. While 2012 was a good year for the industry, with significant increases in both crude steel production and consumption, 2013 wasn’t as good as everyone had hoped. According to the World Steel Association, U.S. steel production was down 2% in 2013 compared to 2012, and forecasts estimate that apparent consumption only grew a mere 0.7% in 2013 over 2012. (Final data has not been released.)

But there are some promising signs. The World Steel Association’s October outlook stated that steel demand is expected to increase by 3.0% in 2014, aided by the improving global economy and activities in the automotive, energy, and residential construction sectors. In addition, as reported by Modern Metals, both automotive sales and construction housing starts are expected to increase in 2014.

Even with these positive indicators, most metals companies remain cautiously optimistic about the near-term future. According to an annual survey of metal executives by American Metal Market, the majority of respondents expected business to improve, with only 8% stating they were less optimistic about business as they headed into 2014. However, three in four respondents said political events have heightened uncertainty, and only 30% of executives expected the economy to turn around this year.

Strategic Shifts
As the industry continues to wait for a true economic comeback, we are seeing some major strategic shifts in the businesses that we service. Unfortunately, a few businesses just could not find a way to survive, but many others were able to adapt and found smarter ways to work. They became leaner, more productive, and made investments where they mattered. We have also seen the emergence of several industry trends, such as consolidation and an influx of new services and products, as companies attempt to remain profitable.

One trend that we hear a lot about is “on-shoring” or “near-shoring”—the process of moving a business operation from overseas back to the local country. China, of course, has been the common landing spot for outsourced manufacturing in recent history. However, with rising labor and energy costs, China’s cost advantage is disappearing. That, along with the difficulties in managing a business across the globe in countries with vastly different work and social cultures, is helping drive the “on-shoring” trend. This is great news for the U.S. metal-cutting industry, as we will help rebuild America one business at a time.

When the market does finally rebound, companies need to be ready. Based on our experience, we at LENOX Tools see the following best practices as critical action items for companies that want to be prepared for quick growth:

Another Year of Improvement
The reality is that no one knows what 2014 will bring, which makes agility and strategy critical. In fact, uncertainty is perhaps the only thing that is certain in this market. However, there are two things the last few years have taught us: you can never be too prepared, and there is always room for improvement.

Industrial metal-cutting leaders know they cannot afford to rest on their laurels—not in 2014 or in the future. Continuous improvement is the only way to succeed in today’s market, and best-in-class managers are proactively encouraging change at all levels of their organization. We at LENOX Tools are ready for another year of improvement, and we look forward to helping equip our customers and their employees with the tools they need to make this year one of their best.

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Selecting KPIs for Your Industrial Metal Cutting Organization

March 15, 2014 / , , , , , ,


Most companies that have adopted lean manufacturing strategies know the importance of measurement. When a metal-cutting operation can quantitatively assess their performance, it can start to make significant improvements and set realistic goals to stay competitive. It also allows them to benchmark themselves against other industrial metal-cutting organizations. However, metrics are only meaningful if they are tied to strategy. That’s where key performance indicators (KPIs) come into play.

KPIs are the measurements selected by a company to give an overall indication of the health of the business. KPIs are typically dominated by historical, financial measurements, but most experts agree that they are more valuable if they also include operational measurements. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds and takes careful consideration.

Case in point: Over the last several years, it has been popular for manufacturers to us overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) as a KPI. However, this blog post argues that OEE is not a KPI that should be measured at a company or plant level. In the blog, the author states five reasons why OEE is not a good KPI, including the fact that it is not comparable between different pieces of equipment and/or different locations. Instead, he suggests OEE should be used as a way to help identify and eliminate waste in front of a process, line, or equipment.

Although the “right” KPI will vary by organization, there are a few simple guidelines managers should follow to determine the most effective performance measurements for their metal-cutting operation. Below are a few strategies to consider:

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The Importance of Ergonomics in Lean Fabrication

March 10, 2014 / , , ,


Over the last ten years, the term “efficiency” has moved beyond an industry buzzword to an industry expectation. Most fabricators have incorporated some form of lean principle into their operation, and those that haven’t are starting to consider it. In today’s market, only the “leanest” survive.

What many managers may not realize, however, is that lean processes can make jobs highly repetitive. As pointed out in this article from Industrial Engineer, this often eliminates critical rest time for employees. “The repetitive jobs take their toll on employees as stressful postures and high forces are repeated over and over throughout the day,” the article says. “In the long run, the financial savings from the productivity gains and quality improvements are used to pay for the higher cost of workers’ compensation claims.”

This is why many leading fabricators and other industrial metal-cutting organizations are incorporating ergonomics into their lean processes. Strategic equipment placement and improved ergonomics not only keep employees safe and healthy, but they are key aspects of high productivity and optimized workflow. The fewer times an operator touches a material, the fewer chances for injury and human error, both of which contribute to productivity.

Here are just two examples of how ergonomic improvements can make a difference in an industrial metal-cutting operation:

To read more about the impact lean manufacturing processes can have on employee health, check out this article from the Safety Daily Advisor. While being “lean” may be expected of today’s manufacturers, as the article warns, fabricators need to be sure they aren’t becoming anorexic.

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Valuing Your Plant Floor Operators Can Pay Off

March 4, 2014 / , , ,


For the last several years, most metals companies have been investing in technology to improve productivity. And as the industry tries to deal with the skills gap, that trend will likely continue. In fact, a report from Fabricating & Metalworking expects 2014 to be the year of “unprecedented automation.”

However, industry leaders also realize that automation isn’t going to be the panacea for their workforce challenges, nor is it the only way they can optimize their operations. A growing number of manufacturers are finding that plant floor workers can play just as much of a role in improving efficiency and, if leveraged correctly, can be more of an asset than a cost.

According to this article in The New York Times, a few years ago, motorcycle manufacturer Harley completely redesigned its production system around this concept. The company built a brand new plant, but instead of relying on robots to ramp up productivity, the well-known brand put its value in its workers and the problem-solving skills they brought to the table.

Of course, Harley is a custom, unionized shop. Can the same hold true in a high-production metal-cutting environment? A recent column from IndustryWeek says yes. As evidenced in the winners of its Best Plants Award, IW says that leading manufacturers—both union and non-union—are investing in their plant floor production staffs and are seeing positive bottom-line results.

Here are a few metals companies that also finding that to be the case:

To succeed in today’s competitive market, metalworking executives need to optimize all aspects of their operations—and that includes their human capital. Whether it’s incentivizing employees to keep quality high, leveraging their problem-solving skills to improve productivity, or providing them with the training to acquire the skills required in today’s automated plant, it pays to value your operators. Like Harley, metals companies have a choice: They can either treat their plant floor operators as costs, or they can turn them into valuable assets.

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Facing the Workforce Challenge

December 20, 2013 / , ,


While finding “good help” seems to be an age-old management challenge, it has become a critical issue for today’s manufacturing industry. It’s no secret that a large percentage of skilled manufacturing workers are facing retirement in the coming years, while only a small percentage of younger workers have an interest in filling those roles. What may be surprising, however, is that most manufacturers are doing nothing about it.

According to ThomasNet.com’s Industry Market Barometer, the manufacturing industry continues to be heavily populated by Baby Boomers, the post-World War II generation that is at or near retirement age, while workers ranging from 18-32 remain completely untapped. According to the recent survey of more than 1,200 manufacturing companies, three-quarters of respondents report that 25 percent or less of their workforce are in the Generation Y age group. And while 29 percent of respondents say they will increase employment of Generation Y workers in the next two years, 49 percent expect the numbers to stay the same. In fact, ThomasNet believes the manufacturing industry is up against a “biological clock” that is rapidly winding down when it comes to recruiting and training the next generation of workers.

An article from ModernMetals.com echoes the same sentiment, stating that “a dearth of workers will cause the manufacturing industry to hit a wall in the future.” This, the article says, is the main reason why industrial metal-cutting companies need to consider strategies that will help them cultivate future talent—and fast.

Of course, one way to address this workforce issue is for managers to actively hire a new generation of workers. However, the real challenge will be finding ways to ramp up their skills and knowledge base so that both quality and productivity are comparable to that of seasoned workers. As described in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenge For Metal Service Centers, there are two key tactics managers can use to encourage a high-quality workforce, regardless of experience level:

There is no doubt that today’s industrial metal-cutting companies need to make hiring a new generation of workers a top priority. Indeed, the workforce issue can no longer be ignored. However, hiring “good help” isn’t going to be enough. To be successful, today’s operations managers need to make sure they are also training and maintaining that help.

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