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.
March 25, 2017 / best practices, continuous improvement, human capital, industry news, lean manufacturing, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, optimization, productivity, Safety, strategic planning
For years, manufacturers have relied on lean processes to improve productivity and to reduce waste. This is certainly a good thing from an operations standpoint. However, from a safety and health perspective, lean manufacturing can have a few drawbacks.
For example, lean practices make jobs highly repetitive. As pointed out in this article from Industrial Engineer, repetitive jobs often eliminate 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 forges and other industrial metal-cutting organizations have incorporated ergonomics into their production processes. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), ergonomics is defined as fitting a person to a job to help lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity, and reduce the number and severity of work-related injuries. 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.
Not sure where to start? An article from IAC Industries describes possible workplace risk factors and suggested solutions. For example, there are at least six different types of musculoskeletal risk factors operators may face:
- Forceful exertions and motions.
- Extreme or repetitive exertions, postures and motions.
- Duration of exertions, postures, motions, vibration and cold.
- Insufficient rest or pauses.
- Work factors (for instance, close performance monitoring, wage incentives, machine-paced work).
- Environmental factors.
The article then goes on to describe an example of an ergonomic workstation design. According to IAC, incorrect working height is often responsible for extreme postures and motions at the workstation. Recommendations for the appropriate working height are as follows:
- Six inches above elbow height for fine work such as proofing documents or inspecting small parts.
- Four inches above elbow height for precision work such as mechanical assembly.
- Same height as elbow for writing or light assembly,
- Four inches below elbow for coarse or medium work such as packaging.
Of course, this is just one of the many ways a manufacturer can improve ergonomics within their operation. Another article from Ergonomics Plus, an Indianapolis, IN-based company, offers a 10-point checklist to help managers create a framework for building a successful ergonomics process. According to the company, a solid ergonomics process doesn’t have to be complicated to be successful, but it can be challenging to get all the right pieces in place and achieve sustainable results. You can review the entire checklist here.
If these suggestions feel overwhelming or you don’t quite know where to start, you may want to consider bringing in some professional help. Earle M. Jorgensen Company (EMJ), a metal service center featured here in a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, decided to perform an in-depth ergonomic study at one of its metalworking facilities. With the help of a third-party resource and input from its shop floor employees, the company made several changes to the shop floor to eliminate unnecessary handling and transportation of material. Ergonomic improvements ranged from repositioning band irons to adjusting the height of staging tables. By optimizing the workflow, EMJ has seen a reduction in employee injuries, improvements in operator efficiency, and increased output. The service center has also seen an increase in shop floor morale, as operators feel they are playing a critical role in helping the facility succeed.
In what ways could you incorporate ergonomics into your forging operations?
March 20, 2017 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, human capital, industry news, LIT, operations metrics, operator training, optimization, performance metrics, preventative maintenance, productivity, resource allocation, ROI, strategic planning
As we reported in a previous blog, capital spending among machine shops and other metalworking companies has been down for the last several years. This has been largely due to an unstable marketplace and low business confidence among shop owners. The good news is that industry reports suggest a rebound in the near future.
However, this dip in spending has caused many shops to take a closer look at the value of their existing equipment. When new equipment isn’t in the cards—and even if it is—it is important for today’s managers to understand the total cost of running their metal-cutting equipment and, even more so, what their total worth is from an operations standpoint.
Below are just a few ways shops can be sure they are looking at the value—not just the cost—of their existing equipment:
- Look at profitability, not just productivity. As explained here, overall equipment efficiency (OEE) is a critical metric that measures the percentage of production time that is truly productive. It takes into account all six types of loss, resulting in a measure of productive manufacturing time. According to a recent article from Modern Machine Shop, OEE is helpful, but it may not be enough on its own. “Managers have to balance decisions about maximizing the part-making capability of their equipment with decisions about the money-making potential of this equipment,” the article states. “OEE ratings alone provide an incomplete picture.” The article goes on to describe a measurement called Financial OEE (FOEE), a trademarked name for a new feature of a communications platform from Memex, which accounts for profitability. As stated in the article, “FOEE helps a shop understand how machine performance is helping (or hurting) profitability. This insight provides guidance—and incentive-to focus on the most appropriate productivity improvement efforts.” More specifically, FOEE is the current-state hourly profit divided by a value representing a world-class level of profit. This ratio compares what profit a company made with what profit could have been made at world-class levels. This information can help shops see the financial value of improving the machine’s performance. To read more about this metric, check out the full article here in Modern Machine Shop.
- See existing equipment as an asset. A common struggle among many shops is finding enough working capital to invest in new equipment. To help fight this battle, a recent article from Canadian Metalworking discusses how shops can use the value of existing equipment on the floor. “An asset-based lender, one who has experience in the manufacturing industry, will recognize that a good, brand-named machine tool that has been paid for in full, is an asset that can be leveraged,” the article states. “The equipment is used to provide collateral for financing new machinery, or as a resource to raise working capital to cover the additional costs of product development using existing equipment.” This does require the shop to have a full understanding of how existing equipment is evaluated and how it can be leveraged. To read some tips on properly evaluating and grading your machinery, click here for the complete article.
- Consider the value of maintenance. It’s a pretty simple fact: Equipment that isn’t running is pretty much worthless. This seems obvious, but many shops still put preventative maintenance (PM) and other housekeeping tasks on the back burner in an effort to stay productive. The irony is that this usually ends up hurting productivity in the long run. As stated in the brief, Cost Management Strategies for Industrial Metal-cutting Organizations, there are several aspects of equipment maintenance that contribute to overall costs. “From an operations standpoint, managers can keep costs under control by making sure metal-cutting equipment is operating as optimally as possible,” the brief states. This includes ensuring that equipment is running at the proper settings and that fluids are adequate. Closely monitoring blade life and maintenance reports are also critical. Perhaps the most important consideration is a strong preventative maintenance program. Programs can be as detailed as a shop feels is necessary, but a few checkpoints are outlined here in a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology. If limited personnel is the issue, check out this blog about getting equipment operators involved in daily PM tasks.
What other factors contribute to the value of your metal-cutting equipment?
March 5, 2017 / best practices, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, productivity, quality, skills gap, strategic planning
Data from the U.S. Labor Department continues to show that the skills gap is real. As reported here by the Wall Street Journal, the number of open manufacturing jobs has been rising since 2009, and 2016 registered the highest number in the past 15 years.
Why does this continue to be an issue? According to the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, there are several layers to the current workforce challenge. First, skilled production workers are one of the largest workforce segments facing retirement in the near term, which will have an impact on the number of experienced workers on the shop floor.
Meanwhile, the current talent pool isn’t what it should be. Streamlined production lines and more process automation have changed the nature of manufacturing work, and the incoming generation of workers either isn’t interested in working anywhere near a production line or lacks the necessary skills and technical knowledge.
The question continues to be, then, how can companies fill the gap? While the issue is too complex for one “sure-fire” solution, many believe that training and, more specifically, apprenticeship programs are an effective way for companies to fill their employee pipeline and build their team’s skill set.
An article from IndustryWeek argues that while colleges may turn out students that may know things, manufacturing companies need students that can do things. This is why apprenticeships are key. “Perfectly positioned at the intersection between knowledge and training, apprenticeship programs are ideal talent incubators,” the article states. “The positive outcomes of skills training are many: stronger communities, a skilled and confident workforce and an increase in the number of career opportunities for our young people.”
The U.S. Department of Labor defines apprenticeships as “an employer-driven, ‘learn while you earn’ model that combines on-the-job training, provided by the employer that hires the apprentice, with job-related instruction in curricula tied to the attainment of national skills standards,” according to its web site.
With hands-on jobs like metal-cutting, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of on-the-job training. However, the problem is that many companies don’t want to pay for it. The apprenticeship model typically involves progressive increases in an apprentice’s skills and wages, which can be viewed as costly to organizations, especially if they are afraid employees will take their skills elsewhere.
The good news is that there are several new initiatives out there that are trying to alleviate that cost by joining the industry and government together. Below are two examples:
- One initiative, called Incumbent Worker Training, is funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The program is helping Kentucky companies like metal stamper Tower International cover training and apprenticeship program costs. The program reimburses 50 to 90 percent of training costs, depending on the size of the company, for in-demand sectors and occupations, including manufacturing, technology, healthcare, food and beverage production and transportation, distribution, and logistics. Employers can qualify for as much as $10,000 per year to cover costs such as non-company instructors, tuition, curriculum development, textbooks, supplies and more. Tower has used the money to help cover training costs for three employees in the company’s registered apprenticeship programs. You can read more about the program here.
- Another proposal, called “Toward a New Capitalism” from the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, is based on the idea of “pay for performance.” According to an article from The Atlantic, the government-backed corporate retraining program is set up to help companies pay for training, but only for curricula that raise a worker’s wage. For example, if a company spends thousands of dollars to train an employee on a specific skill that results in a pay raise, the company gets reimbursed by the government for the training costs, even if the employee decides to leave. “By training workers, businesses are essentially buying a small equity stake in their future wages,” the article explains. “If their wages rise, the company gets money, while the worker gives up nothing, purely benefiting from the training program.” You can read more about the program here and here.
While apprenticeship programs aren’t by any means a new idea, they could be exactly what manufacturing needs—again. For an industry that has spent a lot of the last few decades focusing on process and efficiency, it’s time to place the focus back on people. By investing time and resources into building a highly skilled workforce, you are ultimately investing in your company’s long-term success.
How is your company building a skilled workforce? Could an apprenticeship program help close the skills gaps in your operation?
March 1, 2017 / agility, blade failure, blade life, blade selection, customer service, industry news, LIT, strategic planning
As we reported in last month’s blog, experts consider aerospace to be one of the strongest industries. In one report from the Metal Service Center Institute, Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group Corporation, said that aerospace was the only industry that saw growth acceleration through the recession and that the civil aviation sector in particular offers “major opportunities for long-term growth.”
This, of course, is good news for industrial metal-cutting companies serving this sector, and prospects continue to look good for the near future.
Set to Soar
According to a report from Defense News, the aerospace and defense industry set a new record for international sales in 2016, delivering $146 billion in exports. The article went on to say that 2017 could be “another banner year” for the defense and aerospace industries thanks to some anticipated government orders.
As reported by Defense News in December, the U.S. State Department approved in the first quarter of this fiscal year foreign military sales worth an estimated $45.2 billion dollars, which is said to be more than the total foreign military sales for all of fiscal 2016. “If approved by Congress and manufactured this year, some of those purchases could help rack up the export total for 2017,” the article states.
Deloitte’s 2017 Global Aerospace and Defense Sector Outlook is also optimistic. According to the Executive Summary, Deloitte expects industry revenues for the global aerospace and defense sector to resume growth, driven by higher defense spending. Following multiple years of positive but subdued rate of growth, Deloitte forecasts that sector revenues will likely grow by about 2.0 percent in 2017.
Forecasts from industry leader Boeing show similar trends. According to a January report from Reuters, Boeing expects to deliver between 760 and 765 commercial aircraft in 2017, topping 748 deliveries in 2016. Honeywell, on the other hand, forecasts a slight decline in 2017; however, the company expects deliveries will begin picking up in 2018 due to the strength of several new aircrafts entering service, AINonline reports.
This could spell opportunity for many industrial metal-cutting companies. As an article from IndustryWeek states, the aerospace industry is a good business in which to be competitive because the underlying drivers of demand are very strong. “Since the end of the Great Recession, new commercial aircraft orders have typically been double, and in some years, triple the number of annual deliveries,” the article states. “This reflects explosive growth of air traffic in the emerging world as rising incomes and declines in ticket fares make air travel affordable for increasing numbers of households.”
Equipped for Growth
As a critical part of the supply chain, there is no question that metal-cutting companies could reap the rewards of aerospace’s success. However, companies serving this sector need to be sure they are doing what it takes to win the business of both existing and potential aerospace customers, even if that means investing in advanced metal-cutting tools designed to meet the unique demands and shifting trends within the industry.
For example, as reported here by The Fabricator, Superior Machining & Fabrication has upgraded its 110,000-sq.-ft. machine shop to better serve the aerospace sector. “Changes include the addition of CAD/CAM software, a larger 5-axis bridge mill for hard metals, and a 5-axis SNK bridge mill,” the article states. “The company also has tripled the size of the quality room, added an assembly room, created a staffed tool/fixture room, introduced lean manufacturing/5S throughout the shop, and segmented the shop into cells with their own leaders/supervisors to help improve product flow.”
Shops should also be sure they are equipped to handle the material demands of customers, including the growing use of titanium in aerospace components. In a recent interview with American Metals Market, Rich Harshman of metals supplier Allegheny Technologies, Inc., says he sees a significant mix shift happening within the aerospace industry. Specifically, he says there is a “growing demand for our differentiated next-generation alloys as well as growing demand for our isothermal and hot-die forging and titanium investment castings.”
For metal-cutting operations, this means having a carbide-tipped band saw blade. Since titanium and other high-performance alloys are stronger and harder, they need more than the average bi-metal blade. Using a carbide-tipped band saw blade not only allows for the successful cutting of hard metals like titanium, it simultaneously offers longer blade life and faster cutting as well, according to the white paper, Characteristics of a Carbide-Friendly Bandsaw Machine.
In today’s unpredictable market, the truth is that no one really knows what the future holds for aerospace. However, industry leaders know that it pays to be prepared. Tailoring your operations and processes to meet the unique demands of the industries you serve will not only position you as a valued supply chain partner, but as an agile, industrial metal-cutting leader that is ready to fly when demand takes off.
February 28, 2017 / best practices, Cost Management, Employee Morale, human capital, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, ROI, skills gap
The idea of investing in your employees sounds good in theory. In fact, many would say that this is a trend among manufacturers as they try to find ways to address the widening skills gap.
But as any metals executive knows, theories don’t pay the bills. Resources designated to employees may offer some “soft” benefits like improved morale, but is there any financial benefit to investing in employees?
Research shows that the answer is yes: Investing in employees does offer a good return on investment (ROI). In an article published by Harvard Business Review, Alex Edmans, professor of Finance at London Business School, says that research of stock market data clearly reveals that the benefits of investing in employees outweigh the costs and that employee satisfaction improves firm value.
“I studied 28 years of data and found that firms with high employee satisfaction outperform their peers by 2.3% to 3.8% per year in long-run stock returns—89% to 184% cumulative—even after controlling for other factors that drive returns,” Edmans writes in HBR. “Moreover, the results suggest that it’s employee satisfaction that causes good performance, rather than good performance allowing a firm to invest in employee satisfaction.”
According to Edmans, the findings have major implications. “For managers, they imply that companies that treat their workers better, do better,” he writes. “While seemingly simple, this result contradicts conventional wisdom, which uses cost control as a measure of efficiency.” (You can see all the details of Edmans’ findings here.)
Research conducted among forges and other industrial metal-cutting organizations show similar results. A benchmark study conducted by the LENOX Institute of Technology provides evidence that investing in human capital is critical for improving on-time customer delivery and driving higher revenue. Specifically, the survey of 100 industrial metal-cutting operations found the following:
- 64% of organizations that cite their operator turnover is decreasing year over year also report that on-time job completion is trending upwards—a critical correlation.
- 51% of organizations that reported reduced levels of operator turnover also said their revenue per operator had increased.
With data like this, it is hard to argue against the value of investing in employees. And while most executives think of pay raises when they think of employee investment, the good news is there are several ways forges can invest in employees. The following are just four possible approaches that go beyond pay:
- Listen. Operators that work with equipment every day are a valuable source of information. Be intentional about collecting feedback and implement some of their ideas.
- Equip. Invest in an employee’s future with incentives like continued education or management training. This shows employees that you value their personal success and provides them with new skills that can benefit your operation in the long run.
- Communicate results. Regularly share performance reports with employees by either posting them or discussing them in staff meetings. According to the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, sharing report results encourages accountability, provides motivation, and reminds operators that they are a critical aspect of the company’s success.
- Reward. Studies continue to show that goal setting and incentives are effective motivational strategies. Empower your operators by letting them set their own goals. This also holds them accountable for their work and promotes long-term “buy-in” and loyalty.
Investments of any kind usually present some risk, but in the case of human capital, it seems unlikely that there are any real threats or disadvantages. As research confirms, pouring resources into the very people that keep your company running is just good business—in theory and in practice.
How is your forging operation investing in employees?
February 20, 2017 / agility, best practices, blade failure, blade life, blade selection, Cost Management, customer delivery, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, productivity, quality, resource allocation, skills gap, strategic planning
Thanks to an unstable marketplace, capital spending among machine shops and other metalworking companies has been down for the last several years. However, new reports suggest a rebound in the near future.
According to data from Gardner Business Intelligence (GBI), machine tool consumption peaked at $7.5 billion in 2014, and then contracted 3 percent in 2015 and 7 percent in 2016. Based on GBI’s Capital Spending Survey, projected total machine tool consumption in 2017 will be down an additional 1 percent. However, as reported here by Modern Machine Shop, the survey also shows that demand for core machine tools will increase in 2017 by 9 percent. In addition, GBI’s new econometric model for machine tool unit orders indicates that the rate of contraction in overall machine tool demand bottomed in July 2016 and will improve through the end of 2017.
Steven Cline, Jr., director of Market Intelligence at GBI, says the driving force behind the projected rebound is the need for increased productivity. “Shops need to increase productivity in order to remain competitive in a global manufacturing marketplace and to counteract the much-talked-about skills gap,” Cline writes in Modern Machine Shop. “More and more shops are turning to lights-out and/or unattended machining to achieve this increase in productivity, but new equipment, including machine tools, workholding and automation, is needed to run lights-out.”
As reported in the news brief, “Strategies for Training and Maintaining Talent in Industrial Metal-Cutting Organizations,” industrial metal-cutting companies have spent the last few years investing a lot of time and resources into their workforce. This has helped boost productivity and address some of the skills gaps, but the GBI survey suggests that shops are seeking a balance that requires investments in both human capital and equipment.
For example, Speedy Metals, an online industrial metal supply company and processor, recently upgraded its band saws to improve efficiency. “We had been searching for a reasonably priced, high-production band saw to add to our saw department and boost our production,” Bob Bensen, operations manager, tells Modern Metals. “We needed a reliable band saw that was going to stand up to the rigors of our fast-paced environment.”
Bensen went on to say that the new band saw, which has nesting capabilities and allows his operators to cut a variety of metals, has improved productivity. This, he adds, has given Speedy Metals a competitive edge and allows his company to continuously offer same-day shipping on quality parts and customized saw cuts that meet the closest tolerances.
Similarly, metal-cutting companies like Aerodyne Alloys are investing in new metal-cutting tools to further improve efficiency. Working with hard-to-cut metals like Inconel 718 and Hastelloy X, the metal service center decided to upgrade from bi-metal blades to carbide-tipped blades to get higher performance out of its band saws. After upgrading to a carbide blade, Aerodyne was able to tackle hard, nickel-based alloys, while also improving cutting time on easier to cut materials like stainless steel. According to a case study, this helped improve operational efficiencies at Aerodyne by up to 20 percent.
Of course, not all capital investments offer a good return. If your shop is considering investing in new equipment or tools this year, be sure to measure cost against productivity. According to the white paper, Selecting the Right Cutting Tools for the Job, managers need to weigh the following:
- upfront costs against overall operating and maintenance costs
- long-term productivity of a machine and its intended use
- equipment and blade life, as well as cost per cut
There is no question: Staying competitive in today’s market is tough. Demands for high quality and quick turnaround continue to increase, while cost pressures and issues like the skills gap remain. How will your shop respond? As the GBI survey suggests, it may be time to consider making some capital investments to ensure that your team is fully equipped to meet demands.
February 10, 2017 / best practices, LIT, operator training, quality, strategic planning, supplier relationships, value-added services
For most fabricators, supplier relationships are the building blocks of success. While there are still some companies that base their supply chain on price, as customer expectations for both quality and delivery continue to increase, many industry leaders are taking the time to form strong supplier relationships that are built on a lot more than an affordable product or service. In many cases, suppliers are becoming strategic partners.
Data confirms this trend. As reported in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, a survey conducted by Tompkins Supply Chain Consortium found that 80 percent of supply chain professionals believe that the supply chain is an enabler of business strategy. “A majority of companies also felt that the supply chain is a source of business value and competitive advantage,” the eBook states.
How can you form strong supplier relationships that provide real value? The eBook offers three best practices:
1. Schedule on-site visits. Like any relationship, communication is key. Expect your prospective supplier to assume a “partner” role from day one by focusing more on service than on the sale of the product. To facilitate this relationship, start by asking for an on-site needs assessment. This gives you the opportunity to discuss your business goals in person, as well as providing the vendor with a full overview of your operation.
2. Include training in your purchase agreement. Most suppliers should be willing to provide some level of value-add training as part of the purchase agreement. This is especially important when it comes to your equipment and tooling providers. No one knows your production equipment better than the people who designed it, and they should be willing to share that expertise with you.
3. Expect thought leadership and self-service tools. Industry-leading partners should be able to support your business by providing informational and educational materials, as well as practical tools and services. You can and should rely on your supplier to be an industry thought leader that provides a steady stream of valuable industry trends data, operational strategies, and technical product information.
Of course, maintaining strong supplier relationships doesn’t come without its challenges. According to the 2017 Manufacturing Outlook Survey conducted by ASQ, 83 percent of manufacturers experienced problems with suppliers last year. However, only a third felt concern that those issues would spill over into 2017. In addition, 66 percent of those surveyed said they are working with current suppliers to fix previous concerns—an indication that the majority of manufacturers see the value of working closely with existing suppliers to address challenges they face. As an article from Supply Chain Drive notes, “…a consistent cycling of suppliers can harm long-term performance as relationships take time to cement.”
ASQ does warn, however, that manufacturers should be prepared for those moments when suppliers don’t come through. The key is to openly communicate with existing suppliers to determine any potential risks and, more importantly, to have back-up plans—and back-up suppliers—to alleviate supply chain disruptions. Ultimately, the goal for any manufacturer should be to turn vendor relationships into strategic partnerships. By taking the time to build trust and value into the supply chain, suppliers can become an integral part of your business strategy and, more importantly, your shop’s success.
In what ways can your fabrication shop get more out of its supplier relationships?
February 5, 2017 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, LIT, operator training, quality, ROI, strategic planning, supplier relationships
Keeping costs low and quality high are the top goals of just about every industrial metal-cutting operation. What’s interesting, however, is that many companies treat these two areas as independent variables. A recent series of articles from IndustryWeek (IW) shows why it is important for managers to look at quality and cost together. More specifically, it recommends that companies quantitatively measure the cost and benefits of quality.
“Tracking the financial impact of any support function is necessary in order to illustrate its value and garner continued support and resources from senior management,” the IW article explains. “This struggle is vitally important for quality management departments that continue to struggle with competing for resources. Once organizations get clarity on the financial impact of quality, the next step is to understand what practices and applications help improve the financial value.”
Unfortunately, this seems to be easier said than done. Based on the results of a 2016 survey conducted by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), approximately 60 percent of organizations say they don’t know or don’t measure the financial impact of quality. According to a report on the survey’s findings, “this lack of measurement may be attributed to not having a common method for capturing the financial impact.”
Many companies also do not understand the benefits of measuring quality and, instead, simply use it as a means of “compliance” or to keep customers happy. This is especially true in today’s market. As stated in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenges for Metal Service Centers, customers continue to expect higher quality and tighter tolerances from their metal-cutting suppliers.
However, the IW article states that quality should be about more than “checking a compliance box” or basic due diligence. “Developing a solid foundation of quality assurance for continuous improvement, risk mitigation, and compliance provide immeasurable value,” the article states. “However, once that solid foundation is established, organizations can then leverage quality for the benefit of the customer and enhance brand image, thus serving as a competitive differentiator.”
In fact, based on ASQ and ASQC’s survey findings, “organizations that leverage quality as a strategic asset were more likely to report higher levels of financial gains from their quality program.” In other words, companies are using quality to drive profitability.
For more information on how to start measuring the cost of quality, click here to access IW’s four-part series. The articles look at the relationship between financial benefits and the following areas:
- the role and uses of quality,
- governance and standardization of quality,
- quality training for suppliers, and
- quality incentives and training for staff.
How are you measuring the financial impact quality has in your service center?
February 1, 2017 / agility, customer delivery, customer service, industry news, LIT, strategic planning, supplier relationships, value-added services
Although there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the economy, many metals companies and experts are fairly optimistic about the short term. According to the January 2017 Precision Metalforming Association (PMA) Business Conditions Report, metalforming companies expect strong business conditions throughout the next three months.
Much of this optimism is based on positive forecasts for end-use markets. At the Metal Service Center Institute’s Forecast 2017 Conference, for example, economists and industry experts shared positive outlooks for several customer segments, giving the metals supply chain an idea of where to place their focus this year.
Below is a summary of segments that show some growth potential for industrial metal-cutting companies this year, as reported by MSCI. (You can access the full report here.)
- Aerospace. According to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group Corporation, aerospace continues to be the strongest industry and “the only one that saw growth accelerate through the recession.” Aboulafia said that commercial deliveries to China are setting a new record, but now, in part due to a lot of backorders on jets, it is the civil aviation sector that is offering “major opportunities for long-term growth.”
- Military. Aboulafia expects military aircraft to be stable and profitable, but says he is only cautiously optimistic about any growth over the next five years or so. The good news for steel and aluminum producers and processors, however, is he doesn’t expect a lot of competition. He believes that both civil and military aviation will “continue to favor legacy products” in their manufacture.
- Energy. Experts are the most optimistic about the renewable energy sector. “Federal tax credits are the heart of what is driving this industry,” said Andy Lubershane sector specialist at IHS Energy. “And those credits have now been renewed, so we are looking at a lot of strength for both wind and solar perhaps into 2021.” Costs are dropping in both segments, Lubershane said, and efficiencies are increasing, both good signs for industry strength.
- Construction. A continued demand for new housing is adding muscle to residential construction, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist at AGC of America. He judged the outlook for this sector as “very positive” for the foreseeable future.
While these are broad-based outlooks, they should provide metal-cutting companies with some confidence as they invest in existing customer segments or consider branching out into new markets. Knowing where the growth is located is a critical part of strategic planning.
Of course, the other key element is knowing how to best serve those customers—both new and existing. As reported in the news brief, “Strategies for Improving Customer Service and On-Time Delivery in Industrial Metal Cutting,“ on-time deliveries are no longer enough. Today’s customers are looking for trusted suppliers that go the extra mile. “Whether offering a new, value-added service or investing in certification, metal-cutting companies have several opportunities to cultivate a strategic customer relationship built upon premium service,” the brief states. (For some specific strategies for improving customer service, you can download the full news brief here.)
It is far too early to tell how this year’s market will shake out, but as the above forecasts show, there are several segments that offer growth potential for industrial metal-cutting organizations. With a little strategic planning and a strong focus on customer service, companies may find they can make this year one of their best.