Monday, January 25, 2010

What goes around comes around

I attended a book signing a few nights ago, where a local author, a full-time bartender, talked about the creative process of writing a mystery novel that features a "hard-boiled" but gentle private investigator. Ironic that this event coincided with the notice of the death of the king of modern detective mysteries, Robert Parker, whose Spenser novels have been best sellers for decades.

Anyway, this new author entertained a receptive crowd with anecdotes about his experiences in writing his first novel. In so doing he got so carried away with thanking his many supporters that he neglected to tell us how he overcame the lethargy that writers experience when they have exhausted all they can say about a specific thought and end up staring at a blank computer monitor screen.

Robert Parker, throughout his entire career reputedly always wrote five pages of a novel everyday, seven days a week. Five pages, that's 2500 to 3000 words, every day, quite a feat. When I talked with the local author as he signed a copy of his book for me, I asked how much time he devoted to his first attempt. His response was interrupted by his publicist who needed his attention and when he continued with me the talk shifted to other subjects, so I never learned his regimen, except that he told us that it had taken him two years to finish a 285-page book. In Parker time that's about two months. I guess the local guy has to ratchet up his work ethic.

Leaving the book signing, I was asked about my book, which has morphed into a screenplay. I've been working on it for about 18 months, off and on and I've only got 40,000 words done, maybe enough for a "treatment" as they say in Hollywood, but only half of a thin novel.

Another friend asked why I didn't compile and publish a selection of the editorials I have written for ILS over the first 25 years of the magazine. This prompted me to start looking through the bound copies of the 24 volumes of the magazine; an exercise which changed direction as I forgot the original idea of trying to determine if there was enough material for a compilation and turned my attention to what I have been writing all these years.

No, I'm not going to bore you with nostalgia, but I did think you might be interested in a column I wrote in April of 1992, in the depths of the other recession that disrupted growth in the industrial laser business. Setting aside the dated references to a "white paper" I thought the message to the then President George Bush (the elder) has meaning today.

Who's in charge here, anyhow? The Congress? The Bureaucracy? The political candidates? Heaven help us if the latter, with all their posturing and finger pointing.

No, it's quite simple. The President is in charge. Mr. Bush, an old navy man, should remember that the captain of the ship assumes full responsibility, no matter what happens.

So, Mr. President, set aside politics for the moment and heed the words of one of the Democratic candidates for nomination. In his well-written and presented white paper, "A Call to Economic Arms – Forging a New American Mandate," Paul Tsongas
(since deceased) hits us where it hurts; "A nation without a manufacturing base is a nation heading toward Third World status."

He doesn't enamor himself to fellow Democrats with such statements as, "America's standard of living is totally dependent upon their capacity to compete and be profitable." And scientists and engineers should applaud this: "The economic war that we are loosing is centered on process technologies. The taking of new ideas, indeed even old ideas, and converting them to manufacturing goods is the great trade battleground."

President Bush would do well to read Mr. Tsongas' white paper, set partisan political rhetoric aside, and take the high ground with a statesmanlike position on rebuilding the U.S. as a world-class manufacturing power.

We know how to do it Mr. President--we just need the man in charge to identify the issue as one of his greatest national concerns. No government handouts. No new commissions. No wasteful regulations. Just a call to arms, if you will. We can do it, Mr. President, but we need your sincere and unflinching support.

You can substitute Obama for Bush and it still resonates.

This is not a new position for me, as I have always espoused the American "can do" spirit. Historians may say that it was a significant contributor to recovery from the 1990-92 recession. With some support from the top it might be a contributor to speeding up the moribund rebound we seem to be experiencing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ten milestones in the history of industrial lasers

Dave's Challenge ended without a clear winner as no one was able to guess the ten top industrial laser applications of the first 50 years of the laser. Some came close, and several suggested very legitimate possibilities. However, I set the rules for my choices as follows: the application was innovative and a breakthrough in terms of it's utilization, it filled an industry need as exemplified by its eventual global acceptance, it advanced laser and system technology creating spin-off technology that continues the growth of industrial laser materials processing, it had longevity as determined by its continued use today, and finally the markets that used the application are measurable in terms of units sold and/or revenues produced.

I was surprised that some respondents did not read these rules very carefully, submitting lasers as choices, not the application. Those who came closest to picking all ten have a long career in industrial laser materials processing technology, and the wrong guesses they made were great choices, which did not qualify because they did not meet all the criteria. Among these were: welding aluminum spacers for thermal windows (probably the most suggested non-winner), drilling ink jet printer nozzles, manufacturing photovoltaic solar cells (actually too new to meet all the criteria), welding of disk drive flexure assemblies, and welding automotive automatic transmission components.

What were my choices?
- Hermetic sealing of miniaturized electronic relay cans
- Ceramic substrate scribing
- Sheet metal cutting
- Drilling holes in jet engine turbine blades
- Tailored blank welding for body-in-white
- Rapid prototyping/manufacturing
- Microvia drilling
- Laser marking
- Micro-circuit adjustment and trimming
- Stent cutting

Why these choices? Well you'll have to read the January/February issue of Industrial Laser Solutions (out this week) to understand my rationale. Before you dash off rebuttal e-mails ( read the selection criteria carefully.

I was a little surprised that I did not receive any submissions after the recent distribution of the Laser Community , a laser magazine from Trumpf, which contains a timeline of laser milestones, including my choices (pages 14-15).

Who was the winner of the American Express gift card? I wasn’t surprised that the best submissions came from people who have many years of experience in developing industrial laser applications. In some respects, I suppose, the contest was loaded in their favor as many of them are my contemporaries. The winner who came closest was Tom Kugler of Laser Mechanisms ( He also had some of the best applications not selected, which would make my list if the total had been expanded to more than ten. Congratulations, Tom.

Was this exercise worth it? Several people have told me that searching their memory banks for candidates was a beneficial exercise and that reminiscing about their choices brought many fond and, in some cases, bitter memories. It also spawned the idea for the worst or funniest industrial laser applications, which will be presented at ICALEO next September in Anaheim.

One final amusing note, as many may be aware Massachusetts just held a special election to fill the unexpired seat of Senator Ted Kennedy. Two of the three candidates raised millions of dollars in the last days of the campaign, most of it seemingly spent on television ads and telephone calls to the State’s largest voting block, the Independents.

Over the past three weeks my wife and I have been bombarded with unsolicited telephone calls on behalf of the leading candidates, mostly grouped around the lunch and dinner hours, with many during the televised NFL playoff games hours. As the days to the election narrowed down these calls increased in frequency, and the callers became more prestigious as the hours counted down.

It gave me great delight to refuse telephone calls from the President and Vice-President of the United States, along with a former President and several congressmen and senators, not to mention a host of unknowns on behalf of both candidates and the candidates themselves. All told, before the polls closed, I estimate that we refused more than fifty calls, most unanswered and all deleted.

So candidates, your money was wasted on my wife and me. But it was great to hang up on the President, just because it was a once-in-a lifetime thing. Yes, I know most were recorded “robot’ calls but I can still say, “I didn’t take his call.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A fresh new year with great promise

The first couple of weeks in a new year can be invigorating. Just turning the calendar page to January gives one the feeling that there are twelve of these ahead, each one a fresh page to fill up with good happenings. After this short period of euphoria, reality usually sets in and all those little details that did not get done over the holidays start showing up, and before you know it you are back in the same mode as before the holidays. I call this my "inauspicious" time, a period when I have to work just a little harder to get back the energy it will take to move forward. It only lasts a brief time, because news starts to flow (most of it good right now), and we have the all-important Photonics West (PW) trade show looming two weeks away.

Photonics West tends to be an optimistic trade show attached to a large technical conference that is heavily populated by technical people who seem to thrive so much on the sessions they attend that they can't let go and you find them everywhere still talking about the last technical paper they attended.

We who will be in San Francisco for the trade show however are so busy making contacts and exchanging marketing news that it’' almost like we are in a different world than those attending the conference sessions. After a decade in San Jose we will be spending the week in one of the pleasantest cities in the world. We'll miss the dinners at Original Joes and lunch at Il Fornio, but San Francisco has so many choices we won't lack for good social venues.

PW, as I said, has always been an upbeat show. Maybe it's more of that fresh year, new calendar page stuff but it has always produced more positive than negative news. Last year the exhibitors who were featuring laser products for scientific, military, and research markets had a great show, while the few industrial laser product suppliers did not. PW is expanding the numbers of exhibitors that fit this description, as the Mosconi Center offers more space than the overstuffed San Jose Convention Center. So we will all be gauging the next six months for industrial lasers on what we hear and see at the show.

Many of you will have already heard that 2009 was a miserable year in the industrial laser world markets, except for China which rebounded at the half-way point due to timely and well placed stimulus spending by their government. I'll be presenting the industrial laser market economic review and forecast on Monday of PW week at the Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar and it won't be a fun time. My report on 2009 will be grim as a worldwide recession in manufacturing completely stultified the market, especially for high-power laser systems, used mostly for cutting metal.

The impact of a major slowdown in this market cuts across all the market numbers because these systems represent more than 50% of all industrial laser revenues; a loss of one-third of a billion dollars from the laser systems supplier's revenues hits the entire supplier base, laser manufacturers, systems integrators, and the suppliers of all the ancillary precuts that go into these. I begin to tell you about the fallout from this one market sector as it was painful for so many companies, their employees, and their suppliers.

But, it's a new year and the news is already much better. Here in North America the laser cutting system suppliers are expecting a 19% increase in sales in 2010 after a 44% loss in 2009. This is a very doable number that can happen if the chips fall just right; a loosening on the part of the banks will stimulate some pent-up spending throughout the manufacturing chain and by the end of the first half of 2010 we should be seeing better times.

So a fresh 12 months on the calendar are full of promise.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A new year, a new opportunity

It's the start of a new year and new decade (what happened to the last one) so we should all look forward to a fresh 52 weeks that can only be better than the last as all the actions that were announced and put in place should begin to bear fruit. My guess is that they are budding nicely as I am hearing more positive stimulus or shovel ready jokes, although some are quite mean, that indicates to me that something is happening.

As King Mongkut of Siam said in the King and I musical, "it's a puzzlement." Our elected representatives in the U.S Congress swear to defend the country and to attend to the health and welfare of our people. And yet politics trumps all and they prefer to bicker, call each other names, and point fingers of guilt rather than remember what they were elected to do. Let me repeat what I said in an earlier blog, it's the economy – stupid!

It seems that the latest terrorist threat on Christmas day has everyone in Washington focused on placing blame. Just a simple question, what would be their attitude if the explosives had gone off? Another binge of 9/11 patriotism? Or more pin the blame on someone exercises.

Now I am as patriotic as the next guy. You may be surprised to learn that I was out of the country on 9/11 and fairly remote from the up-to-the minute news, getting it mostly in German (which I don't understand) or in phone conversations with my wife. So I did not experience the 24 hour news saturation of the events and thus I look back at that attack with a detached viewpoint. What did strike me then, was the unified sharing of grief and the outspoken "one voice" of our leaders. The political finger pointing did not start right away, as it did when the hurricane hit New Orleans.

My view of political vagaries is not provincial, having seen the same types of reactions in Japan, Germany, and the UK. So I think this political response must be worldwide. In fact I can imagine a Neanderthal rival chucking rocks at his chief who blew the mammoth hunt with a missed spear thrust. Not a bad analogy, right?

Those who get dirt under their fingernails as they labor in the vineyards know what the situation is; they want to work and ask that those who can see to providing a workplace do so. Instead of only saying no it would be refreshing to hear a unified voice in Washington saying go.

We are blessed here in America with a willing, ambitious, hard-working and ingenious work force, just waiting for some encouragement from Washington to get things going, like we know an American team can do.

Having vented on my distaste for politicians of all stripes let me point out that in spite of them we have triumphed before and will again. I am so encouraged by the good things I read and hear about. Successes that I used to call "slivers of light" are so abundant that one can't be negative about rapid recovery in the U.S. manufacturing sector. All we have to do is to make and sell one more widget than we did yesterday to brag about growth. And if 10,000 industrial companies make and sell one more each day we have the beginning of a wave, not a tsunami, but a pretty healthy swell that will lift all the boats that begins to look like a surge.

As the New Year begins I am optimistic about prospects for this to happen, with or without political support from the country's leaders. I don't want to hear about nagging unemployment and I am tired of hearing things like, "at least the negative numbers are not as bad as they were last month." When did the American "can do" spirit turn so negative. A phrase, coined by speechwriter William Safire, and delivered by then Vice-President Spiro Agnew, in a speech given in San Diego on September 11, 1970, comes to mind. He criticized the press as "nattering nabobs of negativism." Substitute politicians for press and the term is quite apt today. It's going to take more than the negativism rampant in Washington to dull my optimism that the beginning of a new decade will be less than auspicious.

In case you missed it, The Institute for Supply Management announced that U.S. manufacturing expanded in each of the last five months of 2009. In December the index went to 55.9% with new orders rising five points to 95.5% and production increasing two points to 61.8% while employment increased 1.8% to 52% indicating that the manufacturing sector is adding workers at a faster pace. In all fairness, backlogs grew at a slower rate to 50%, on the border between growth and contraction. I think five months of expansion is great news and I choose not to ride with the herd that is now projecting quiet recovery.

Maybe we should use the term the Wall Street Journal (1/4/10) used to describe the financial market performance in 2009 – rebound, if not recovery; I kind of like that. Rebound, a verb, implies an elastic response, a sort of springing back, whereas recovery, a noun, reminds me of a return to health over time, a convalescence tied to timing. So for the time being I'm going with rebound, until proven wrong.