August 19, 2014
The manufacturing skills shortage has been a hot topic for several years. In New Hampshire, we’re addressing it from many angles – direct contact with secondary and post secondary schools, mentoring programs, STEM activities and curricula, etc. It’s getting better. The skills shortage was the topic of a recent business news program on our local television station, WMUR. In it, Gary Groleau of New Hampshire Ball Bearings, a large aerospace supplier in our area, and I discuss the current state of affairs. Here’s the link to the program:
July 9, 2014
I had the chance to hear a fascinating talk by designer Francis Bitonti on the marriage of art and 3D printing. He has created a number of unique designs as 3D printed objects – from bicycle racks for New York City to a 3D printed dress. He is a true visionary who can see the potential for unleashing 3D printing as a game changing technology in the world of design and fashion. Not making toys, but real works of art. He’s put his money where his mouth is and designed a number of household accessories with 3D printing in mind. Unlike many designers and artists, the extent of his design IS the design. He does not produce the products. He makes the design available for you to make on your 3D printer. He operates his design website like a download service. For a small fee (in our case, $1.00), we downloaded his design for a small bowl. We loaded the design file into our MakerBot 3D printer, and 9 1/2 hours later, had an original Francis Bitonti bowl in our hands. A little clean up and a can of metallic spray paint and we had a three dimensional accessory available nowhere else except through the mind of Francis Bitonti and a desktop printer!
March 26, 2014
I had the great pleasure of spending most of the last two weeks in India. My wife and I were invited to attend the wedding of the son of a former work colleague. Besides the chance to spend time with an old friend and to absorb the fantastic cultural experience of an Indian wedding, we also toured many of the famous sites throughout the country. An added treat was a plant tour of my friend’s company, Pradeep Metals, Ltd. Started with his father over 30 years ago, the company has evolved from humble beginnings to become a world class supplier of nuclear grade steel forgings. This journey involved a dramatic change in markets served, additions of many quality standards, an ongoing lean manufacturing effort, constant reinvestment in new equipment and methods, investment in his employees, and a commitment to social responsibility. You could tell this story in any industrialized country and instantly identify the type of company this is – a modern, progressive manufacturing company committed to customer service and employee empowerment. This level of sophistication is not unique in Indian manufacturing. This level of energy is also not unique.
Throughout India, in addition to the many palaces, forts, and monuments such as the Taj Mahal, you can feel an incredible energy. You see the little stores packed on top of each other in the crowded cities and in the smallest towns. A whole nation of entrepreneurs at work, with few breaks or downtime. The roads are packed with trucks, cars, scooters, camel carts, bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional cow or monkey. You’ll see a hand operated water pump next to a bank of solar cells. Universities advertise their degree programs on billboards along the highways. While you can’t escape the broad contrasts of luxury hotels located next to people living in the streets, there is a surging economy gradually making life better for many in this country of over 1 billion people. There are challenges of bureaucracy and corruption working against growth, but not enough to stop it. With a well educated work force, a familiarity with western business practices, and the rule of law prevailing, this seems like a country well positioned to be a focal point for expanding global businesses. I saw a huge difference in the country since my last visit of twenty years ago. I left feeling that even greater changes are at work and India is poised to be a major player in the global economy.
February 26, 2014
Many manufacturers are concerned about the next generation of manufacturing workers. What if we have a manufacturing renaissance and nobody comes? The issues of relevant education, workforce preparedness, and employee demographics have been some of the topics discussed at every gathering of manufacturers in the last decade. We can’t blame the education system completely. They may be on the wrong path in the eyes of manufacturers, but a question remains. What have manufacturers done to change the situation? Besides a lot of complaining, I think the answer is, not much. You need to get involved with the education process or there will be no change, or change not necessarily in your favor. So, what can you do? There are a number of opportunities if you just put in some time and dedication.
The first is to go visit your local schools, talk to the teachers and administrators, visit a class, invite teachers and students to visit your facility. We know from experience that educators know very little about manufacturing. They think it’s a dead end. Once they have a better understanding of what you do and the needs and opportunities available in manufacturing, they begin to realize that the headlines are not all true. The oohs and aahs you get from students seeing a manufacturing plant in operation are cherished responses. They had no idea how or what was happening in your factory.
Once past the introduction to manufacturing, we’ve found that working with educators to identify programs and courses to better prepare students for careers in manufacturing is a positive exercise. Although the wheels of education turn slower than those of industry, change is possible. Being a curriculum adviser to a program at your local high school or Career and Technical Education center is a rewarding experience and helps build trust and understanding between the business and educational communities.
Next, you need to make a commitment to educating the next generation. Internships, job shadowing, and apprenticeships are all appropriate methods for engaging with students. Even a small company, such as Graphicast, can have an impact. We have a college student from Keene State College doing an internship for us. She’s in their Industrial Safety and Environmental program and is helping us comply with the newest safety standards. We also have a high school student doing a job shadowing program. He comes in two afternoons per week to learn about manufacturing. His expressed interest in engineering is getting a real world test, and he’ll know much more about what he wants to do and where he wants to go to college after his time with us.
There are many other areas of advocacy where we can help improve the perception of manufacturing. Developing relationships with local colleges and universities, getting to know your legislators, and testifying on behalf of manufacturing related legislation are several areas of value. As manufacturers, we are faced with many daily challenges that we overcome to advance our companies. The educational and training issue is just another challenge we need to address if we are to prosper in the future.
June 19, 2013
I had a meeting of my CEO Peer Group on Monday. As a treat to ourselves at the end of our 2012/2013 meetings, we met on the sailboat of one of our members, a 38 foot Catalina. Moored at an ideal spot in Portsmouth, NH harbor, we boarded quickly and were soon in the Gulf of Maine sailing out to the Isle of Shoals, about ten miles off the New Hampshire coast. The weather was spectacular – a light breeze, calm seas, and sunny, with a few puffy clouds. The forecast was for the possibility of scattered thunderstorms later in the afternoon. No problem. It took about two hours to get out to the islands, and looking back we could see some darkening, but nothing too concerning. We spent the next hour conducting our meeting, enjoying the cool breezes and the slight rock to the boat. Getting ready to go back, we noticed a significant change toward shore. Scattered thunderstorms was not quite correct. A dark mass with some ugly clouds, indicative of a front rather than isolated thermal storms, was covering the shore. Now we were concerned that the weather was going to be much worse than forecast. We decided to head back, stowing the sails and motoring at full speed. The seas and winds picked up. We headed in toward the coast, then turned to run with the storm a little to give us more maneuvering room. By the time we turned toward the coast again, the storm was upon us and we headed through it. The seas rose to six to eight foot waves and the winds exceeded 70 knots. It was more like being in a hurricane than a scattered thunderstorm. Even without the sails, the boat heeled in the swirling wind. Waves crashed over the bow. Our helmsman kept his eye on the seas and the weather, applied his knowledge of sailing and his boat, and got us through in good shape. When we re-entered Portsmouth harbor the water was calm, and the sun was out. Damage on shore was significant, including parts of a nearby dock which had fallen into the harbor. Our experienced captain said it was the worst weather he had ever sailed.
The business metaphor of this trip is too hard to avoid. Know you business. Know your markets. Look at the forecasts. Enjoy the propitious weather and the profits of a good run. Be prepared for changes. Use your skills to navigate the worst economic storms, surviving with your business and bringing it to calmer times to prepare for another profitable journey. This sounds a lot like the last five years. There couldn’t have been a better lesson for a boat full of business owners.
January 22, 2013
We run a sales forecasting model every month to try to predict how we’ll do for bookings one and two months out. Our model is a neural network model based on company performance, econometric data, and market trends. This type of model uses years of historical information to try to develop predictive trends. We run the model multiple times to get a range of predictions. Sometimes they are tightly grouped, and other times, they can bounce around. This happens even though the same data are used. When things bounce around, there are usually conflicting data. Data that usually move together begin to come apart. That’s what happened in December. Good econometric information was clashing with negative emotional measures and the predictions bounced back and forth between dismal and pretty good. The real, numerical data was showing growth, but people were still negative on the economy.
We were expecting that the emotions would begin to turn to mirror the numbers, and that began to happen in January. Prior to January, most of of our bookings had been from recently added customers, seemingly unaffected by the slow economy, while our legacy customers, more affected by the economy, were not ordering. That changed in January. We began to see orders from companies who had been dormant for the past few years. Additionally, the newer customers started ordering larger quantities of parts. This is beginning to feel more “normal”, if such a term can describe our post recession economy. In any event, we’re enjoying the change. Hopefully, it will continue. Maybe the forecasting model will start showing more stable numbers and operate as if the world has returned to a more predictive mode.
June 26, 2012
Jaffrey, New Hampshire is a small town in the southwest corner of the state. It’s an old mill town that still supports a number of manufacturing and industrial companies. I came across an interesting company yesterday, one that does “urban mining”. Urban mining is the process of extracting and recycling valuable components from discarded items. The big push is on electronic waste, which has become an immense disposal problem. The company, E-Waste Recyclers, brings in all types of electronic and electrical devices for recycling and value extraction, much like conventional mining. They have about 30,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with piles and bales of segregated components such as printed circuit boards, plastic cabinets, sheet metal frames, wiring, and other hardware. Their activity, and the value of the recycled components, is very much affected by the global economy.
Right now, there is a big market for components containing rare earth minerals. These minerals find their way into dozens of high tech products. The main source of rare earths is China, which is tightly controlling the export market, putting pressure on other sources of these minerals. Besides reopening closed mines elsewhere in the world, extracting rare earths from other sources, such as recycled magnets and electronics is a growing market.
At one time, almost all e-recycling was done in China. It’s a labor intensive process, and with few environmental and safety standards in place, and low wages for their workers, the Chinese dominated the market. With the exposure of the Chinese labor and environmental abuses, increased transportation costs, and the growing value and improved methods for extracting value from components, environmentally safe facilities providing decent wages have sprung up closer to the sources of the e-waste. This is good news and a hidden factor in the broader subject of re-shoring manufacturing, and recycling, back to the US.
June 20, 2012
An interesting relationship exists between manufacturing jobs and service jobs. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy issued a report on the impact of Smart Manufacturing and High Technology on New Hampshire’s economy in March 2011. Besides the fact that Manufacturing and High Tech are the largest portion of the state’s economy (at 19%), more manufacturing jobs equates to more services jobs. In referencing economic scenario models done by Fairpoint Communications, the Public Policy Center reported that every 100 manufacturing jobs created 138 indirect and induced jobs in other sectors, creating a total of $16.5 million in personal income. By contrast, 100 health care jobs created 55 indirect and induced jobs, creating $7.3 million in personal income. Further down on the list, 100 tourism jobs only created 32 indirect and induced jobs, for a total personal income impact of $4.4 million. More manufacturing creates a wealthier economy for all. We need more skilled workers to grow the manufacturing economy!