Tuesday, March 30, 2010

If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium

Four industrial laser events are coming up in the next three months, two in Europe and two in the U.S., the first here in New England in two weeks. This event, the Symposium for Advanced Laser Applications (SALA) (www.ccat.us/sala) is, as the title implies, a two-day look at advances in industrial materials processing, with a focus on the applications that are of interest to the aerospace industry. However, the presenters are careful to advise that these applications are applicable to other industry sectors as well. One of two highlights is the first CCAT Innovation Award for Laser Applications in Manufacturing Operations, a long overdue recognition of the efforts individuals make to transition the technology into industry. The second is an Open House tour of CCAT, where SALA attendees will view five advanced laser material processing systems performing state-of-the-art applications such as laser cladding, laser drilling and laser paint stripping.

The second event chronologically is AKL’10, the International Laser Technology Congress (www.lasercongress.org) to be held in Aachen on May 5-7. This biennial event featuring more than 60 speakers has built a reputation as Germany’s leading forum for applications of laser technology in the production environment. As a presenter at the opening Technology Business Day, I can vouch for the quality of the technical presentations and the always busy technology exhibits that draw large crowds. This year the organizer, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology, celebrates its 25th Anniversary with a social celebration and tours of its facility on the last day. At a Wednesday evening banquet, the Arbeitskreis Lasertechnik AKL e.V. and the European Laser Institute will present their Innovation Award Laser Technology in a very impressive ceremony.

Later in May, the Laser Institute of America will present the Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM) workshop in Houston on May 11-12. This is the second in the series that showcases the advances being made in this fast-growing technology. This year the feature, appropriate for the venue, will be tailoring surfaces for use in the oil, gas and energy industries. As the title indicates, this is a workshop where attendees have the opportunity to network with the speakers to learn more about LAM solutions. The highlights of LAM (www.laserinstitute.org/LAM) this year are the presentations by the always entertaining Professor Bill Steen, who will share his thoughts on the technology, and by Ingomar Kelbassa. who will describe an example of a processing application on aero-engine repairs.

And finally, if you made it this far, there is one left and that is the big one, LASYS 2010 (www.lasys-messe.de) in Stuttgart on June 8-10. A relative newcomer to the international show scene, this biennial trade fair for systems solutions in laser material processing is a one-of-a-kind event where, under one roof at the beautiful new Messe Stuttgart, legions of exhibitors, many direct competitors, will show their newest laser solutions for manufacturing operations. LASYS covers industrial lasers only and to back this up a new feature, The Solutions Centre, will be staffed by professionals ready to answer your most complex laser processing questions. Concurrent with the show are the Stuttgart Laser Technology Forum (SLT), the International Symposium on Laser Precision Microfabrication (LPM) and a short course on the Basics of Lasers and Laser Materials processing by the WLT.

If I survive all these events, there should be a resulting raft of interesting blogs.

I would be remiss if I did not mention my indebtedness to ILS Senior Editor Laureen Belleville, who is leaving for the world of biotechnology. Twenty-five years ago Laureen started her career with ILS helping me produce the first Industrial Laser Annual Handbook. Just fresh out of college she decided that technology publishing was her future and off and on over the next 20+ years, she and I worked to make ILS a leading industrial publication. Most recently, Laureen had been the driver behind our journey into the digital world and she deserves most of the credit for the ILS website and the e-newsletters. Frankly, without her, this would have been a hard trip for a dinosaur like me. So thanks, Laureen, and best of luck in your new endeavor; you will be missed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Change for the sake of change, or…?

News item: The U.S. army has decided to forego bayonet training in favor of alternate exercises, learned in Iraq and Afghanistan ducking rifle-mounted projectiles, that place emphasis on twisting, turning, and dodging maneuvers than in hand-to-hand contact. In a spirit of disclosure, I am a Cold War veteran (got a medal to prove it) who was obliged to take bayonet training while in an expedited basic training program. I kept trying to explain to my Drill Sargent, a combat veteran named Hartsock (really), that I, with a Class C non-combat profile and destined for the Signal Corps Electronics school, shouldn't have to undergo this strenuous exercise.

Besides, I argued, unsuccessfully, if there was one round left in my weapon I was going to fire it rather than engage in a duel of cold steel with an adversary whose bayonet was three inches longer than mine. And it turns out, as a left hander in an Army whose training manuals were written for right-handers, the exercise as taught was backwards for me. So you can see my relief that a new generation of warriors won't be saddled with this outdated training regime. Today our highly trained and well educated warriors just call down air support, no more cold steel for them.

I'm reminded of this and another Cold War anecdote as I was having dinner in Bruges, Belgium, with a diverse international group and the subject turned to the former Eastern Block, our erstwhile foes in the Cold War. I told them the story of sitting with a colleague, just days after the Wall came down and the former Soviets became our friends overnight. We were in his apartment in St. Petersburg, and after a few vodka toasts started reminiscing about us being opponents in the Cold War. I recited the bayonet training exercise story to him and, laughing, he told a very similar story about his experiences as a conscripted basic trainee who, being a graduate physicist, found it even more amusing. We laughed because within a period of a few weeks we had become friends and compatriots as opposed to the previous situation.

All of the above happened because the Bruges dinner table discussion was about economic geography. I was being mildly criticized for continued use of the term Eastern Europe as an economic entity in European laser system sales. Actually, I simply use the same designations that appear in the Europeans' analysis of the laser market there; and this term is also used by financial reporters in other publications both here in the States and abroad.

My dinner host suggested I was really referring to the rise of industrial laser activity in Central Europe, as opposed to Eastern Europe; the difference being that the former, composed of hot economies in Slovenia, Slovakia, Romanian, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic (to name a few) are being confused with the less-than-exuberant markets in the former Soviet States, known as Eastern Europe, which includes all the ‘stans.

"Whoa," I say, "Is this a reality? Am I off-base here?" Others at the table, mostly from the American Continent, agree with me. "Yes, you are," say my European hosts. "We refer to markets here in Europe as Western, Central, and Eastern and we see vibrant action in the Central region, but not in the Eastern."

Should I be a pioneer among my fellow laser market reporters and now divide European sales into three categories that mean nothing to most readers? My hosts agreed the too-detailed division does not resonate with most of the ILS readers. I'll throw it to these readers. Would it be better to refer to the markets as EU and non-EU countries; a description favored in the offices of NATO and the EU in Brussels? This would be a harder concept to get across in Asia where these geographic and economic distinctions are too complex to define when the message is laser sales, not politics.

So I'll leave it to readers. Should I, like the U.S. Army, drop an outdated exercise and get with the real world today or is the status quo OK for now? Frankly, divining the economic health of markets in three European entities, when I can barely get cooperation on financial statistics from just two now, will be a difficult task. But then I learned how to balance a bayoneted rifle under my right forearm, contrary too what my brain was wired for, so I should be able to adapt.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Recovery is on track, sort-of

The subjects today are “jobless recovery” and “productivity,” both interrelated so I will treat them as one. The financial media has seized on the former in an attempt to explain why the overall economic news is positive but the not-so-positive news on the unemployment front continues week after week. And more astute observers looking for causes have latched onto the recent productivity increases as one culprit.

There may be some truth in this as we close out the first quarter of 2010 and the time for retrospective analysis is upon us. From what I have read, heard, and experienced so far this year, the picture for manufacturing, globally, is about what was forecast in January; slow but positive growth in the manufacturing sector and caution on the part of the manufacturers in regard to company expansion and capital spending. In January I was told by a number of equipment suppliers and their customers that the first quarter would be the bellwether and that a “wait and see” attitude before committing to expansion would be the prudent thing to do. And the manufacturers could afford to do this as they were running lean and able to handle increasing business from their customers with the status-quo. All of this understandable and commendable.

But as the quarter closes we should have started to hear comments from the capital equipment suppliers that their markets were beginning to stir. And it is happening, for industrial lasers in market sectors that were identified as potential drivers back in January—medical devices, energy, and semiconductors. But the fabricated metal products sector still seems frozen, about what was expected with that industry talking about a late-first-half recovery beginning.

News of companies hiring temporary workers and others adding part-time help is often heard today. Becoming more common is the talk, and action thereof, about automation; taking us back to the jobless recovery and productivity issues. Investing in automation for manufacturing operations is expensive but not as expensive as the recurring costs of salaries and benefits. I have spoken to manufacturers who, having run lean for more than a year, are reassessing their production operations as they gear up for business growth and asking the hard questions about restaffing. Many of these companies are looking hard at what they want to be as their businesses normalize to pre-recession levels.

Back in the summer of 2009 we heard a lot about companies using the recession as a time to look to innovations. It may turn out that innovation is a cover word for automation that will lead to productivity and profit enhancement. No mention of employment here.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Europe where the same prospects and solutions are under consideration in manufacturing, both in the established industrialized West and the burgeoning states of Central Europe. Admittedly there are certain restrictive government polices that acted as a deterrent to employment reductions and consequently inhibit to a degree automated solutions to productivity increases, but the issue is a factor and automation is a well used word today.

I had the privilege of visiting two fabricated metal product producers in two regions in Belgium. One, a manufacturer of air handling equipment, has automated his turret punching systems with robot load/unload automation that not only allows for unattended and more productive operations but in the doing also improves the quality of the parts produced on the systems. As he said, “In order to compete against China (his main competitor) he must keep overhead costs down.” If he adds non-automated equipment (needing more people) it will take him 5 years to get his investment back, with automation it is 3 years.

The other, an international maker of industrial paint booths, has added a laser cutting system that uses an automated shuttle system to load/unload sheet metal and cut components, again adding the advantage of “lights-out” operation. In fact, at this company the only staffed work shift was leaving the plant at 4 p.m. and the lights were being turned off, and yet the laser cutter was still spitting out cut parts and the shuttle was feeding more sheets and shifting completed work. And yet no mention of this was made by the company owner who didn't even call this to my attention as I was exiting the now abandoned shop floor.

Both of these represent recent additions and investment made as the recovery begins, in automation, not in employment, as both company owners told me they do not have plans to add people. Just a small example of what I think may be support for the “jobless recovery” idea; and certainly examples of productivity enhancement through automation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Death by a thousand cuts

When I last left you on the subject of the Toyota recall my sudden acceleration problem was "corrected" or so said the president of Toyota USA. Two fixes by my dealer had me driving with confidence that my quality vehicle was returned to excellent performance.

Not so fast. Another Toyota Limited Service Campaign (LSC) notice showed up in my mail this week; in the same envelope with the two Safety Recall notices about the floor mat interference and accelerator pedal problems. I had short cut the formal recalls actions on my own to effect the corrective action. This new LSC deals with a possible leaking oil supply hose that needs to be replaced.

Media reports suggested the leaking oil problem was not serious enough for a recall. But wait a minute; Toyota may have known about this for several years. I used to lease my Camrys, rolling them over every three years. Going back two leases I remember that the dealer salesman and his service manager placed emphasis on my sticking to the maintenance schedule, as it related to oil changes. It used to annoy me that they were always reminding me to have the oil checked, as if it was my problem; I faithfully took the car in every 5000 miles, as recommended, so why worry about oil problems. On my new one I can't forget the oil change as it shows up as an annoying display that gets more obnoxious the more I ignore it. Then one day in a doctor's office, scanning an old automotive magazine I ran across a letter to the editor commenting on this same concern with oil, and shortly thereafter Consumer Reports, that unbiased reviewer of automobiles, cautioned about possible undefined oil problems with certain Camrys with no details.

Here it is several years later and Toyota is now acknowledging that as far back as 2005 they had oil hose leaking problems. What's next Toyota, a recall for the entire car? And in the Wall Street Journal I read that the president and CEO of Toyota blames unnamed profit-hungry executives who put bottom line ahead of quality at the company. But, in a gesture that I have often applauded with others, he took full blame; you know, that old 'captain of the ship' analogy.

On my first trip to Japan, I was advised by my employer (at the time a multi-national conglomerate) that I had no worries while traveling there. One of the corporation's subsidiaries was a personal loan company with offices in cities throughout the world and especially in Japan where they were said to be on every street corner. "If you ever have a problem or need cash, just go to one of our branches, show your company ID, and they will take care of you." How that eases your mind when traveling in a foreign country for the first time.

The only problem, literally as I was boarding the plane for Tokyo, a massive scandal rocked Japan and the government in power at the time. It had to do with some illegal payments to certain officials involved in major purchase of an aircraft that had wings fabricated by a division of my company. The scandal was so deep that it brought down the political party in power, and the top executives for the airline and government involved actually were imprisoned.

So here I come, feeling that my Big Brother company has me covered and will watch over me as I navigate a strange country. Arriving in Tokyo and reading the newspaper I learn my company is so disgraced by the scandal they shut down all the loan offices, eventually pulling out of the country altogether.

It was my first experience with a culture that valued "face" to the extent that a disgraced executive has been known to make the supreme sacrifice as a demonstration of his shame. Over the next few years I was to see more of this where "the buck stops here" had major consequences.

I thought about this as the CEO of Toyota made his mea culpas before the U.S. Senate and the government in China. The consequences of the mess at Toyota are unknown because every day we are treated to new revelations. How he must feel that all is not yet revealed.

On one trip to Japan in 1979 I was mugged by some young hoodlums as I left Tokyo Main Station on a Friday evening after returning by train from Hiroshima. Several railroad workers came to my aid, helping me pick up my briefcase, suitcase, rain coat, and other packages that had been scattered in the street gutter. One of the workers, apologizing for the embarrassment this criminal act caused, said he didn't know what his county was coming to, and that youth had no respect anymore.

Recounting this to associates at dinner the next evening I said I was sad to see so much emulation of America in a country I admired for its culture, and I was sorry that they not only copied the good but also the bad from my country. And now I read that greedy executives (where have I heard this before) may have been the cause for a great company losing its moral direction. Déjà vu all over again.