Mike Weller is the president of Miller Electric Manufacturing Co. and ITW Welding North America, which manufactures arc welding and cutting equipment for manufacturing, fabrication, construction, aviation, motorsports, education, agriculture and marine applications.
CURRENT STATE OF BUSINESS
Business has been consistent in its inconsistency. 2011 presented a relatively consistent improvement in business conditions with each quarter. That improvement continued into early 2012, but the economy then backed off a bit. We have seen a variance in acceleration and deceleration throughout the year, depending on the sector.
Looking at it as a whole, things are continuing to advance, but not all at the same pace and, at times, with a step or two backwards.
Anything related to energy continues to experience growth, specifically the oil and gas sectors. We see consistent activity in transmission pipeline construction (in North America and globally), great activity in boom areas such as North Dakota, in states such as Pennsylvania where shale gas is prominent, and in southern states such as Louisiana and Texas.
Manufacturing, as an industry, was one of the first to experience a sense of recovery but has since lost steam. The Purchasing Manager’s Index dropped below 50 over the summer, which reflected a slowing in the pace of the overall economy. As the year comes to a close, it accelerated again past 50, but dropped down to 49.5 in numbers released on December 3.
Mining has taken a little step back as you see prices moderate. Agricultural interests have backed off a bit with the drought and increases in food prices. Even our more consumer-based customers – personal users, artists, hobbyists, etc. – were being impacted by factors such as high gas prices earlier in the year, but have shown more buying momentum towards the end of the year. In these ways, it has been inconsistent.
As shops try to produce more and become more efficient within the current footprint and structure of their businesses, we are seeing growth in such practices as migrating traditional stick and solid wire applications over to tubular wire products (metal cored, flux cored) for greater and more consistent performance, productivity and less rework, while looking at automation to help drive productivity in the face of the continued skilled labor shortage.
Many shops are looking at new ways to reduce the weight of their existing products and, as such, we are seeing significant increases in aluminum filler metal and more efficient ways to weld aluminum, which leads to new product innovation there. Pipe welding technologies continue to be in high demand given the continued boom in the oil and gas sectors, and, as such, we are seeing consistent demand for our products dedicated to pipe welding – both process piping and transmission pipelines.
We’re also seeing significant demand for products that not only help the bottom line, but help improve the working environment and worker satisfaction. As such, demand has been high in the construction industry for engine-driven welder/generators as they not only provide excellent performance, but address specific customer pain points related to fuel use, extending runtimes, reducing noise on site to improve communication and safety, and reduced size and footprint.
Skilled Labor Shortage: All of our industrial sectors (manufacturing, construction, fabrication, shipbuilding, etc.) continue to be faced with a lack of skilled welders. This means companies ranging from large manufacturers to short-run job shops are looking for new ways to automate their processes.
To meet this demand, comprehensive product lines are being introduced that allow first-time automation users to enter the business using a very simple turnkey solution, along with advanced technologies such as offline programming to help speed the automation process and shorten the time from concept and design to production.
Another key trend to address this, in terms of product development, is to simplify the operator interface and make the welding processes currently in demand by the industry easier to perform. Making welding equipment easier to learn and use will help companies bring workers up to speed faster and retain those workers, because job satisfaction will increase.
Efficiency and eliminating non value-added activities: Addressing again the theme of doing more within the existing framework and infrastructure of a business, manufacturers are looking to do things more efficiently – and that can take many forms. This includes the continued adoption of inverter technologies, which allow for new advanced capabilities, draw considerably less electricity and take up less space, allowing companies to add welding cells and work stations without having to expand the actual physical size and electrical infrastructure of their buildings.
This also includes being smarter with welding processes. As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Weld data monitoring technologies arm manufacturers with data that helps improve operations in the cell, drive out variation, rework and failures, and provide a greater historical view of production – all leading to greater productivity, a greater focus on quality and an overall operational improvement that lets companies produce more for less.
All of this leads to a larger theme for manufacturers, and an excellent way to stay competitive: The elimination of non-value-added activities, which includes everything from process changeover times and overall flow through the facility to post-weld cleanup and rework. A great deal of time is being spent focusing on product and process advancements that help address these core issues that have a direct effect on throughput, material costs, labor costs and waste – all of which can be addressed with relatively simple changes to welding activities.
This has been the basis for many technological advancements made in 2012 and into 2013: New equipment and filler metals aimed at producing high quality welds with little to no cleanup required; pulsed MIG aluminum technologies aimed at increasing speed while controlling heat input so that you can work faster without causing distortion; simplified system interfaces that allow welders to adjust to changing joint geometries on the fly without having to put down the torch and walk back to the power source to make adjustments; and previously mentioned technologies, such as weld data monitoring and offline programming all help businesses manufacture more intelligently.
If companies can get more units out per day, or decrease their weld time, or help eliminate scrap and produce parts right the first time, every time, then they can gain a competitive advantage.
Amid Challenges, Majority of Metalformers Predict Little Change in Economic Activity
U.S and Canadian incoming orders expected to remain steady, according to the latest barometer reading from the Precision Metalforming Association.
U.S. Manufacturing Grows in September –– PMI Dips 0.6% to 55.4
The Institute for Supply Management reports that among the six biggest industries, food, beverage & tobacco remains the best-performing sector, with fabricated metal and chemical products growing strongly.