Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Planes, trains, redux

I’m reminded of that old John Candy movie as European air travelers to and from Europe recently struggled to get to their destinations by whatever means they could, thanks to airline problems with Iceland’s volcanic ash. An acquaintance, in the U.S. for a conference, returned to Germany through Mexico to Madrid and then by train to Frankfurt. It was a case of adaptability and flexibility, traits of which I find we typically are in short supply.

I just returned from a trip to Long Island where I used an auto ferry for part of the trip. For those of you familiar with Interstate 95 in Connecticut, you know that the stretch from New Haven south can be a nightmare, so taking the ferry to and from Port Jefferson is a relaxing and stress-free way to cut more than 100 miles of heavily trafficked roads off the trip.

The point is that I adapted to a potentially messy situation on the Interstate and, by rearranging my plans, I built flexibility into the schedule that enabled me to pull this off. In all fairness, the ferry trips added another $25 to the trip cost, $100 for the ferries less the $75 I saved for mileage.

As this is being written I am assuming that a trip to Germany next week, where I will present at the AKL Technology Business Day in Aachen, will happen. However, it is a little more problematical, as I do not have a fall-back plan if the ash from Iceland's volcano returns to plague the skies again.

The subject of adapting to change and having the flexibility to make it happen is pertinent to our industry. The past few weeks have seen a plethora of news items on manufacturing in the U.S. adapting to the recession's recovery by making improvements in productivity. I have spoken to numerous managers from the equipment supplier industry who mention the commitment their customers have made to “lean” and “green” manufacturing, promulgated by the cuts they made as the recession deepened.

Quite often I heard the word flexibility mentioned as they told me of the draconian cuts that were effected and how they found they could survive with less. This experience, born in one of our most disastrous economic climates, may be an aberration, and as things begin to ease, the temptation to a looser approach, emulating the old ways, may return. Some would argue that they see hints of this in the staffing-up that is apparent at some of the leading suppliers. However, I would counter by pointing out that cuts made last year were deep into the marrow of the bone and that one can only push employee efficiency so far before you lose talent to competitors.

My message is the one I have harped on for some time now: lasers for industrial material processing are for the most part productivity enhancers, and in many cases automated to the point where productivity per man-hour is not lessened. I don’t have numbers to support this, but my instincts, based on long observation of this industry sector, tell me laser technology will ride out the recovery in good shape.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What goes around comes around

Attendees at last weeks SALA event were given reinforcement that fresh applications are making inroads into industry and that these manufacturing tools may, in the future, offset some, of the market softness projected as laser sheet metal cutting matures.

Both of these applications, laser additive manufacturing (LAM) and paint stripping, are not new; developments can be traced back to the 1970s. What prevented them from widespread industry acceptance was basically equipment oriented, the high cost and complexity of the lasers used. With the evolution of improved solid state and carbon dioxide lasers and the introduction of fiber lasers, the cost/watt for beam delivery has decreased to justifiable levels and the ancillary equipment; for LAM better and more efficient powder delivery and for paint stripping improved beam scanning devices and more efficient effluent exhaust systems, has made these two processes more user friendly.

As a consequence LAM, driven in part by today’s lean manufacturing practices, is expanding its user base from costly part repair to actual part manufacture for limited scale production. While paint stripping, heretofore confined to graffiti removal and some military aircraft paint removal operations, has broadened its appeal and other market sectors such as stripping of off-shore drill rigs and highway bridge paint removal are now considered practical. At SALA we saw a back pack model powered by a fiber laser that is being used to strip paint from sections of aircraft.

If indeed, the manufacturing world has gone lean, and orders for specific parts will be filled by instant manufacturing, then the LAM process will soar as it is the perfect answer for art-to-part thinking which is becoming common in certain sectors of manufacturing. At next months LAM Workshop, a large audience of interested manufacturers will get a glimpse of technology changes that bodes well for these processes to be a reliable and well used manufacturing procedure.

As for paint stripping, wider use on military aircraft will be superseded by use in the commercial airline industry, a potential major user of the technology and through the use of back pack type devices experience broader industry use in those applications requiring the ultimate in portability.

Considering that I was personally involved in both technologies in the 1970s it is very satisfying to see them become industry accepted manufacturing practices 35 years later.

On another note, I want to call attention to a feature article appearing in the April 19th issue of Newsweek magazine, where one of my favorite writers, Daniel Gross makes the case for a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. manufacturing sector. In The Comeback Country he makes the case that America has “pulled itself back from the brink - and why it’s destined to stay on top.” A nice contrarian perspective that is only marred by a weak kneed Editors placement of four economist’s view of The Shape of Things to Come. A classic case of my pet peeve on the use of “but” that I describe in My View in the May/June issue of Industrial Laser Solutions.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is it or isn't it?

Guess who I ran into at the tavern this past weekend: the Town Crier. We shared a hard cider while he brought me up to date on what was happening on the local scene; he didn’t report world news because it would be stale by the time he got it from London. When last I had seen him he was preparing for the winter as we were in the throes of what appeared to be “an old fashioned New England winter.” It didn’t happen, though, and that old furry forecaster from Punxsutawney was wrong: we had an early spring.

The river stayed open this year, the Town Crier told me, but record rainfall precipitated high water all winter with floods in the spring, as new records for rainfall were set, so he couldn’t get out in his boat.

“Just goes to show you,” I intoned, “You can’t count on anything when it comes to forecasting. Why, I heard that the Federal government has a special committee that convenes to tell us when we are in or out of financial recession." )

“Is that right? “He asked as he exhaled some alcoholic breath that caused me to move the candle that illuminated our table, in case he ignited. “How do they do that?”

“Beats me,” I said, scratching my head for emphasis. “I guess they hibernate in that same hole as Punxsutawney Phil and don’t come out until the guys that meet under that old tree on Wall Street in New York City, to invest in companies, pick the magic number.”

I told him that the country seems to be doing okay as more pleasant weather arrives. Shoppers were back and the Merchant has been bragging about how increasing sales for the past three months has wiped out his thin inventory. The Farmer got his seed in already thanks to the early Spring and he is talking about record crops this year. It seems he has found some export markets and he is thinking about turning over some new acreage. This of course is good news for the Cooper as the need for his barrels has increased.

“But I heard that things in Europe were somewhat dicey," he countered.

“Old stuff.” I replied. “You need to get better data sources. You’re beginning to sound like that government committee who just peeked out of their hole and still see clouds. Maybe you need a better news source."

“But I get my news from travelers who post notes on the bulletin board in front of the town hall across the river where the stage stops. The people who leave these seem to have some interesting thoughts.”

“Ah, but do they sign them? And, if they do, what are their credentials and do they have an agenda?” I posited.

“Can’t say, but they seem to be in the know.” he apologized.

“There you go,” I said. “And this is what you have been broadcasting?”

Plunking down a few coins for the cider I left him scratching his head in a quandary as I head out for an afternoon tea party.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Markets are looking better

Markets are looking better
It must be a sign of the early Spring we are experiencing here in the Northeast: flowers are popping up way ahead of schedule, and my telephone is ringing with requests for an update on the January forecast for the industrial laser market.

I have just finished preparing a report I will deliver at the AKL ’10 Technology Business Day in Aachen next month (http://www.optoiq.com/index/photonics-technologies-applications/lfw-display/lfw-article-display/371996/articles/laser-focus-world/industry-news-2/2009/12/eli-innovation-award-2010-deadline-imminent.html) so I have been reviewing my numbers and find they are pretty much as expected (http://www.optoiq.com/index/lasers-for-manufacturing/display/ils-article-display/6731610609/articles/industrial-laser-solutions/volume-250/issue-10/features/the-worst_is_over.html). I was on target with growth in the energy, aerospace, semiconductor, microelectronics, and medical devices sectors. And, so far I've been correct on the timing stretch for the fabricated metal products market (second half) and automotive prospects (next year). So my first quarter grade rates an A.

I am concerned about disturbing news for Germany, as reported by Laura Stevens in the Wall Street Journal (http://on.wsj.com/c7DaDj) about German corporate failures. In addition, I have been receiving reports from other sources that all is not well with the Mittelstand (small and medium companies). These companies are the backbone of Germany’s export economy and also happen to be big-time users of industrial lasers, thanks to government subsidies to promote laser technology in the 1990s.

Germany is the engine that pumps the European economy, and its industrial laser products dominate certain markets. It’s a little early to speculate on the impact of an anticipated record number of bankruptcies, but the experts are projecting a sharp decline in the country's GNP. Will this disrupt my forecasts? Yes and no. I had planned on a slow recovery in Germany with probable help from expanding markets for its products in some of the other EU countries. But the depth of the problem with the Mittelstand may act to stultify my forecast to a greater degree.

On the other hand, China keeps increasing the demand for imported industrial lasers and, surprisingly, the aforementioned market sectors in the U.S. are stirring some unexpected growth with domestic suppliers. These may act to offset some of the German decline, and it still looks as though the 5% growth target is achievable.

In June I will be presenting a world view of the markets in a plenary session in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser to be given at the Stuttgart Laser Days. Perhaps I will have a better perspective at that time.