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.

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