Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It could be worse

It could be worse

It’s a lovely spring day and I am walking along the river, which is higher than normal thanks to the runoff from heavy rains resulting from several Northeasters we experienced. A faint voice calls out to me as through the trees I see a rowboat struggling to keeps its head against the roaring river. It’s the Town Crier, and as I near him I can just make out what he is saying.

“I didn’t expect the river to be this high and fast,” he says between gulps for air, as he was rowing to beat the band to keep positioned in the center of the river so that his voice could be heard in the village.

“Where’s your usual rower?” I ask.

“Had to let him go, what with the length and depth of the recession,” he answers. “Been running lean since then and I tell you it’s a chore to row, hold the script, and read the news, all at the same time.”

“Bedsides,” he yells as he digs his oars in to counter a particularly choppy rush of water. “I hadn’t figured on the river rising so suddenly. It’s not what the forecasters told us at the annual Criers meeting in March. We expected a slow, gradual increase in volume that would not cause worries about possible flooding.”

“But surely you saw the signs earlier,” I counter. “Rain set records for weeks and even after a mild winter, it surpassed the usual spring increases. I’ve been telling the guys at the tavern they might want to plan on an unexpected rise in the water.”

“Yeah, I heard about your comments, but like most, didn’t give them much credence, as the recent history of droughts had me question your sanity. Besides, I figured I could handle it without hiring back.”

“Well it’s easy to see I was right," I crow. “And before you comment, it is a surge, bound to taper off to a steady flow. But after the past experiences we’ll be happy with this bounty and count our blessing that the ground will be ripe for a good harvest this year.”

I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not ready to start passing the news that this is going to be a much better year than predicted. There is the possibility that some of the build up in the reservoir has to be drained off before we can expect a smooth predictable flow.”

“Granted,” I agree. “But that will happen and the effect will be just to stabilize the flow as I suggested last January. Besides a group of soothsayers down in Washington have decided that the pace of the economic recovery will be faster than expected and this performance will likely last for 18 more months.”

“Yes, but suppose Mother Nature sneaks up on us with some natural calamity like a volcano. Or suppose some other States have a drought and figure out a way to borrow our water. It could affect the volume and maybe my boat will scrape bottom again. And what if the gifts some Greeks are bearing turn out to be fake and the economy in Europe tanks?”

“Right,” I harrumph. And what are the chances those could happen at the same time?”

Just then another surge caught the prow of his boat and it swung around, taking the Crier downstream at an increasing rate. His last understandable words were: “Maybe with prosperity returning, the town fathers will let me rehire again I won’t have to do the news from this *#%&*# boat."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Up and down like a roller coaster

Just when I was beginning to feel good about global recovery, and at a time when industrial manufacturing news was overwhelmingly positive, comes the new threat of economic collapse in Europe, spawned in Greece and spreading throughout the rest of the world. While I was in Germany two weeks ago, this was all the talk amongst the European manufacturers; they were truly worried that this might be a sign that another economic recession was coming

During the last few years, it seems as though there have been a series of lurchings from one international crisis to another. For example, an expert on the morning network news today informs that the Iceland volcano saga may be just the tip of the iceberg. so to speak, A series of volcanoes may be stimulated by the current one, whose name I can’t pronounce, leading to a decade of ash generation problems, disrupting air traffic to and from Europe.

And I just read that Bender Shipbuilding, a company ILS profiled in 2003-4 was shut down and auctioned off last week. Bender was one of the first shipyards to use a laser for cutting thick plate for ship structures.

The Bender news was part of a Wall Street Journal article, stating that cuts are now common in US manufacturing, where potential capacity in April was just 70.1%, up from last June's 65.1%, but down below historic averages of 80.8%.

Bender’s demise is especially galling as the 91-year-old company built a reputations as an innovative shipbuilder, mostly of the small service boats used in industries such as the off-shore oil business and the Gulf fishing industry. Before the recession, they employed 2000 people and today the company is down to 180; it now remains as Signal Ship Repair and will not be involved in shipbuilding any longer.

I don't know what happened to the laser cutter. Itwasn’t listed as an asset of the company, but I am sure that it will appear somewhere else, maybe not in shipbuilding, but in some other company wanting to cut thick plate with high quality edges.

One bright light from this episode is that the auction brought in about $4 million, more than expected, and the auctioneer said it was a good sign that the recession was over because attendance and bidding was up. Small consolation for the employees of a once proud shipbuilder.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Aachen to expand to global prominence in laser processing

Last week I had the privilege, and pleasure, to return to the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT) located in Aachen, Germany. Two specific reasons brought me to Aachen; the first was the eighth convening of the biennial International Laser Technology Congress – AKL ‘10, during which I participated in a Technology Business Day. The second purpose for the visit was to join in the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of ILT, an occasion that brought back memories of my first visit shortly after the opening of the then new institute.

AKL for years was a German-only event where activity at ILT was reviewed and presentations by sponsoring organizations were presented. Two years ago, ILT recognizing that its research and development work was international in scope, invited the world to attend AKL, thanks to its thoughtfully provided simultaneous translation services. For this an increasing number of non-Germans were grateful. However, as one of those, let me comment that the translators, while extremely efficient and capable of handling complex technical jargon, sometimes lagged in their delivery, causing some of the speaker’s points to be lost. Without advance copies of the PowerPoint presentations, we were left to buttonhole speakers for clarifications on points after the sessions.

That minor aggravation aside, the sessions were, as always, well attended, the opening session filling a large ballroom with most of the 500 attendees and 60 sponsoring companies. Concurrent sessions on Laser Material Processing, Laser Measuring Technology, and Laser Beam Sources drew heavy attendance with special emphasis on Laser Additive Manufacturing, Ultra-fast Precision Processing, and Laser Processing in Solar Technology.

Space is too short to comment on all of the interesting work presented, but the subject that seemed to create the most buzz at later social events ands sponsor exhibitions was the fast rise of Ultra-Fast Laser technology and applications. Is seems that only a few yeas ago laser devices were clunky bench-top arrangements of complex equipment. Now sleek, well designed and engineered, and less costly products are available and a range of new applications are being developed for these products. Laser technology influenced the growth of industrial laser markets more rapidly than many imagined. As a cap to the technical sessions the second Innovation Award was made to Fleming Du of Edgewave GmbH, for his development of a high beam quality Q-switched laser for microprocessing

The visit to ILTs 11,000 m2 facility, was nostalgic for me as I recalled standing on the mezzanine and looking down into a large, mostly empty hall 25 years ago and not having the foresight to imagine the current view, which is a completely crowded area jammed with laser systems conducting more than 60 processing developments overseen by more than 300 employees. ILT has come a long way, and under its current leader, Prof. Dr. Reinhart Proprawe, has expanded its scope of work internationally to the point where a massive expansion plan is underway that will increase the laboratory by several thousands of square meters. Work on the first phase of this, a multi-story car park, which will free up acreage for the building expansion, is well under way. This expansion is part of a 10-year plan that will see ILT and its associated RWTH Aachen University more than double in size with an 800,000 m2 expansion. This expansion is expected to create 10,000 new jobs as more than 250 nations and international companies will be able to conduct research and development alliances with the institutes.

On a final travel note; the trip home was complicated by the effluent by a burp from the Iceland volcano. Airports all over Western Europe were affected to one degree or another as the winds shifted the ash cloud back and forth all weekend. My flight out of Frankfurt finally left as the air traffic controllers gave the pilot permission to take a northerly route back to Boston. This took us over Amsterdam to the Faroe Islands and just south of the coast of Iceland where we passed over and had a spectacular view of the volcano spewing forth more ash. Quite a treat and for me a once in a lifetime view of an active volcano from almost on top of it.