Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rose-colored glasses?

The day after a cataract operation on my right eye, I woke to find that I have been missing a more color-intensive world. As I removed the protective patch, placed after the operation, I immediately noted that my new eye lens was causing me to see brighter colors. Opening and closing my left eye revealed that, even with my corrective glass lens, I am now seeing colors that before were slightly muted; a good term for the change is brilliant. As my eyes adapted, the changed eye began to modify the unchanged eye and as the old advertisement for color TV broadcasting said, I was seeing the world with new color.

With just the wave of a scalpel, my view of the world changed. Wouldn’t it be great if a giant scalpel could change the mess in the Gulf, strife in the Mid-East, the situation in Afghanistan and employment problems here at home? My world is definitely brighter today, and I wish others' were, too.

Actually, it needs brightening today as the G-20 Summit produced dire warnings that the dreaded double-dip recession was more of a reality, and the infamous W-shaped recession and recovery was more likely. What’s worse, the Summit observers were now talking about a lengthy recovery of 2 to 3 years. Thanks a lot guys; didn’t you have any positive discussions in Toronto?

The stock market seemed to ho-hum the whole thing, with little movement on the Monday after the G-20 ministers had their fill of Canadian bon hommie and went home before they could cause any more anguish. I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little tired of that roly-poly woman in the yellow blazer, Merkel, who seems to get her way by threatening to upset the European economy by doing just about what she pleases.

Too bad security didn’t let some of the protesters slip through into the yellow zone so that the isolated ministers could hear what the “people” were protesting. I am all for civil protest, if "civil" and opposed to the idiots who seem to think that breaking store windows and burning police cars is going the attract change. In Toronto, all it caused was a $1 billion security outlay; oh well, some of it went for police overtime, so it did help the Ottawa economy a bit.

So now the talk is about another recession, or a continuance of the one we thought was over. It’s what we hear on the talk shows and from the commentators of both sides. The term double-dip gets your attention, better than a W-shaped recession and recovery.

Back before the recession, I cautioned about talking ourselves into one as the Web and papers were full of projections on the severity of the “next big one” and sure enough it happened. Now rationally it wasn’t just random talk; it was the greedy bankers, insurance companies and investment houses that did us in, but talk helped.

So let’s not let the current round of negative talk start the ball rolling, even if some of it emanates from that woman in Berlin. Things are moving up for us here in the U.S., thanks in part to a hot market in Asia--read that as China so let’s not upset the cart with talk of a double-dip. And let’s hope the doomsayers find something else to jaw about, maybe the lousy refereeing in South Africa. I’m doing my part, going back to have my left eye done in a couple of weeks. That should make the world even brighter.

Monday, June 14, 2010

2x4 Redux

One of the themes I picked up on while participating in last week’s LASYS show in Stuttgart was the idea that the German manufacturing sector needs to become more competitive in world markets. Although the obvious target for competition was China, that country was never named.

I say "obvious" because in a Lasers and Laser Systems for Material Processing Working Committee meeting of the Verband Deutscher Maschinen und Anlagenbau e.V. (VDMA), to which I was invited, reference was made to the Asian market, primarily China, being the largest export market for German-made industrial laser systems outside of Western Europe.

Last year systems valued at $315 million (down 48.4% from 2008) were exported outside of Germany. Asia received 27.4% of these systems, of which China took 13.3%. Contrast this with exports to the U.S. of only 5.3% (it was a recession year, remember). In 2008 70% (~$629 million) of orders for laser systems were from foreign customers; last year it was 75%, but only $340 million. Even so, Germany is a major laser system exporter.

It was suggested that it would be better if those laser systems were put to work in Germany producing products to be exported in competition with the countries in Asia. The implication was thatautomated laser systems could reduce labor costs and contribute to improved productivity that would enable German manufacturers to become more competitive. A statement to the effect that the lower labor rates in China, for example, could be countered by productive, automated laser systems is true, as exemplified by experience in the U.S.

However, one should not denigrate the engineering talent in China, most educated in the U.S. and Europe, who have the ability, when needed, to install automated systems as that country's labor rates begin to climb, which has already started with increases of 35% or more being common. My view is that companies in China do what is necessary to meet domestic consumer demand. If this means goods of less than “world-class” stature, so be it. When consumer demand shifts, these companies are able to improve production technology to meet it, and some are already doing it.

German manufacturers have a burden that many competitors don't and that is onerous labor laws that contribute to high manufacturing costs. Unless regulations are eased, an unlikely scenario, new producers will be forced to become lean, mean manufacturing machines as has happened in the U.S.

In last week's Blog, I facetiously used the analogy of hitting someone on the head with a 2x4 to get his attention. For U.S. manufacturers it was the competition from China and outsourcing that was their 2x4 three years ago. Last year, at the depth of the recession, manufacturers reversed the trend and resourcing (bringing the business back) became common. And what reversed the trend was lean manufacturing (aided by the fall-out from the recession) which made these manufacturers more competitive.

U.S. industrial production has increased 10 months in a row as anaysts have noted. So my message to German manufacturers is that, to meet your competition in the world markets, shipping products rather than lasers to China, for example, you need to lean down and rethink your productivity plan, with lasers being part of this as they are key to many automated processes. And that is my 2x4 whack to you.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Find me a 2x 4

When I was young, very young, I worked each summer on a farm. It was a modern farm; with all the technology advances, diesel tractors, automated irrigation systems, and state-of-the art planting, cultivating and harvesting equipment.

And yet the owners still kept one old horse named Bill, used mostly for small plot plowing and narrow row cultivating. A farm hand, Myron, was responsible for this horse, the only person allowed to drive it for these operations.

I can recall watching Myron hitching Bill up for the days work, and being fascinated by the size and power of this animal. Myron would counter my wonder by stating that Bill was “not too bright”, needing a lot of encouragement to get going. He joked that every once in awhile he would “hit him upside the head with a 2 x 4 to get his attention.”

I don’t know why this stuck in my mind as I responded to a colleague’s concern about the latest U. S. employment numbers issued last Friday. We’ve had the same news each month for the past six months; good news from the marketplace and bad news from the employment scene.

A few months ago I, along with more learned observers, came to the conclusion that this was to be a “jobless recovery”. Since then I have been reiterating this opinion in print and verbally at several public forums. So many times that I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this subject; thus the 2 x 4 analogy. What does it take to get peoples attention?

Many companies are back to pre-recession production levels, and they are doing this with fewer employees than before the crash. When they leaned-down as the recession deepened they used every trick to keep their key people, on the premise that when things turned they wanted to be able to ramp up quickly. And this is just what happened, except they also found they could get back to normal with fewer people.

I don’t find this exemplary, but I recognize the wisdom of it, and I have sincere empathy with those affected by this change in employment practices, as this is a situation not of their making, and they are the unfortunate casualties.

Proof that this is working is given by the U.S. productivity numbers, up 2.1% for the last quarter, but up 6.1% over the past four quarters, the largest gain since 2002. So, doing more with less seems to be working. So back to the analogy, what will it take to get the publics attention, a whack with a board? Times have changed and we need to revise our thinking on the employment numbers. Experts think these will shift down over time as the unemployed find other work and their numbers gradually decline. The time period for this is said to be lengthy and that is not a relief for those affected.
Out of this may come a sleek, streamlined, superefficient U.S. manufacturing industry - buffed-up by automated processing systems, among these highly efficient

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lasers: A bright future achieved

I have refrained from commenting, in my blogs, on the 50th anniversary of the first working laser, an event that is being celebrated this year and as such is receiving wide publicity. I have already presented my views on this momentous scientific breakthrough at several international conferences, with two more to go in the next few weeks. Also I have contributed to several publications, other than Industrial Laser Solutions, all as overviews.

I’d like to take this space to make the event more personal. On the day in 1960 when Ted Maiman’s ground-breaking experiment became public knowledge, I was a research staff member at Raytheon’s Research Division, where we were conducting basic material studies for the company's electronics interests. Working in the Ceramics Group, I was part of a team, approached by the Microwave Devices Group, to design and build a synthetic ruby crystal growing furnace; the ultimate goal was to use these crystals as the media for an optical maser (the old term for the laser).

Raytheon and several other electronics companies were madly rushing to be the first to make this optical maser function, as theorized by many physists. The interest of Raytheon’s Research Division was to gain a share of the government funding that would flow once the device could be proven.

After Maiman’s announcement, work at the laboratory ramped up as the path to success was opened and only lack of imagination would hinder success. Raytheon went on, without me, to advance the technology and to start a commercial laser division that eventually gained acclaim with its development of Nd:YAG, a material used as the energy source for the famous SS-500 laser system, widely used for laser processing by industry in the 1970s and 80s. The pace of laser development in those early years was frenetic as lab after lab made breakthroughs, sometimes weekly. The 1960s was a golden period in R&D for inventive minds that quickly brought forth the ion laser and the CO2 laser.

Shortly thereafter, I abandoned laser technology for my first love: electron beam devices. While working for a company manufacturing industrial e-beam evaporation and welding systems, I finished the requirements for my BS by submitting a thesis on “The Laser – A Bright Future”: talk about a trite title.

Try as I might, I can’t find a copy of the thesis, which probably didn’t survive several moves. But my memory is that I tapped what little published material I could find (before Google, remember) and constructed a glowing report on how the world would be the better for this powerful light. I mentioned laser drilling and laser welding as possibilities, ideas lifted from work done at Western Electric. As I recall, my professor gave me a C+, more for grammar than for technical exposition. I often think he had no idea what I was writing about.

So there you have my modest contribution to the beginnings of laser technology. Now, after four decades of intense immersion in the industrial material processing sector of this technology, I look back at that feeble forecast I made in the 1960s about this invention's contributions to humanity and think, if only.