UpFront: Autumn and Renewal
By Brian J. Hogan
Some people, in some places, claim things are picking up. And it may be true, at that. When the economy fell off the cliff a year ago, many companies in North America were working hard to push products out to an economy that was running quite well. As a result, inventories of goods were significant when everything cratered.
Now, a year later, those inventories have been much reduced, and it's reasonable to expect to see a slow reawakening of demand. If what we're seeing is primarily a response to a reduction in inventories, all manufacturing companies and their suppliers need to be very cautious. Demand may recover, but there's not yet any sign of a boom on the horizon.
Work carefully, add capacity only as customers demand products from you—and make sure they back up their demands with ironclad orders and money. The troubles aren't yet behind us.
But perhaps we're at the beginning of something that can grow into a slow, strong advance. Autumn is a time of things ending, when the leaves are changing and winter is in the air. But it's also a time of transition, and a movement away from the atmosphere of fear and retreat that has borne down on all of us would be welcome.
Nevertheless, remember that all transitions are difficult, even when they involve movement to something better. Transition implies a change from a thing known and familiar to something not yet fully grasped, not fully understood—something involving new challenges. By nature, transition presents risks. But to refuse to move is to accept the status quo, which in the context of manufacturing today means to accept loss and, finally, defeat.
Without a belief in the future, no one moves, no one puts forth the effort required to complete a transition and achieve renewal. Faith in our common future remains strong, fortunately, with most manufacturing professionals simply waiting for the signal that can set them into motion.
That belief in the future is fully justified. No matter what comparisons one wishes to put forth, the productive capacity of US manufacturing is tremendous. Intelligent investment in new equipment has enhanced the already impressive capabilities of companies all over North America, and the companies (whether large or small) that have survived the recent turmoil are hardened and lean. There is enormous strength in this great engine of prosperity we refer to as manufacturing, and when it resumes full operation once again, the results will be dramatic.
So during this time of slowly emerging renewal: No fear, no retreat, and confidence that better times really do lie ahead.
This article was first published in the October 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.