Manufacturing remains in flux, but growing Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

By the time financial markets around the globe started to tumble in October 2008, much of the manufacturing industry was already deep in a recession that had stretched across the better part of a decade. Millions of workers had been sent home, their labor and their experience no longer needed because of more efficient machines and the rise of globalization. Thousands of factories had been shuttered. Whole companies just disappeared. None of it was coming back. It was all gone for good.

Manufacturing was not, of course, the only industry hit hard prior to the start of the larger recession. Publishing and newspapers had been on the decline for years, and the domestic automotive industry, technically under the umbrella of general manufacturing, had been in a slide for a generation. But perhaps no industry was affected more since the turn of the millennium than manufacturing. About a quarter of a million manufacturing jobs were lost over the course of a decade, the large majority of them prior to 2008. As the recession spread from one industry to another, millions of workers were laid off from the collective work force, but manufacturers often still let go of the most employees.

The cycle was vicious, and it continued, month after month.

How is it possible, then, that less than two years after the economy turned, manufacturing is on the rise again? Manufacturing activity increased again in May, according to the Supply Management’s index, the 10th straight month of growth. And even though that growth has started to slow a bit, growth is still growth. Were the 2008 levels just so low that any growth is significant? Or is the sustained increase in manufacturing a sign for the rest of the economy? Nothing is certain, not yet, but all of the indicators do point up, however modest, rather than down.

“But what we’re seeing is that manufacturing is coming back, but it’s not back yet to where it was in 2008,” says Daniel E. Berry, president and chief executive officer, MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network). “From what we hear, people are back up to 50, maybe 60, percent of their 2008 production levels and they’re feeling pretty confident but are very cautious. Manufacturers still are not calling employees back in big numbers for the most part. We are seeing some hiring again in the auto sector, so all of this is good and will have a ripple effect, but for the most part, everyone is still cautious.

“Manufacturing is recovering. It’s still a little bit wounded, but folks are feeling a little bit better — just not enough to jump in and hire back everyone they laid off.”

Prepare for more change

What was normal two years ago will almost certainly not be normal during the second half of 2010 or even during the first months of 2011. What was normal then, in fact, might never be normal again. Even though it might be a cliché, change really is the new normal in manufacturing — and plenty of other industries, too.

Among those changes are the new gaps in the supply chains of some larger original equipment manufacturers, the result of smaller companies closing during the last couple of years, which might cause delays and problems in receiving supplies in a timely manner. A number of industry experts say the availability of credit will also likely change, with banks starting to somewhat relax their requirements for the first time in two years. But the biggest change might be the addition of manufacturing jobs.

“Manufacturing is now the only business sector that has been adding jobs for five months,” says Emily Stover DeRocco, president, The Manufacturing Institute. “Manufacturers have added 126,000 new jobs.

“But the focus is going to continue to be more on what we call mass customization, as opposed to mass commoditization. This reflects, again, the industry’s response to globalization, which is that U.S. manufacturers, in order to maintain their global leadership, have had to move to a higher quality and a higher value product.”

And that higher quality product will almost certainly lead to more changes in the way manufacturers and so many other companies plan and do business. It is the ripple effect across industries.

For example, if you have not already reassessed your vision and your plan for your company — especially in terms of innovation and new opportunities — that should move to the top of your priority list.

“We believe helping companies become more innovative in what they’re doing is an important strategy for avoiding, to some degree, the problems of the past — helping them develop new products that create new markets and growth opportunities is an important strategy,” Berry says. “The market diversification and new product development are areas where we want to be more helpful with companies, with helping them look to the future and avoid the past.”

It can also help you better position yourself and your company for the continuing changes and the eventual uptick in the economy and the industry.

Keep the long term in perspective

Two years ago, few manufacturers — few companies at all, really — were prepared for the recession. But you can prepare for the ascension, however slow and modest it might be, by being smart during these coming months and years.

You might think about researching how to best tap in to loans, grants or tax credits that are available from various levels and departments of federal, state and local government to help increase business during challenging times. You might also consider your risks, especially over the long term. And you will likely want to diversify your product lines into other markets, so you aren’t as dependent on single-source customers, and, more generally, diversifying your portfolio.

“Company executives really need to come to fundamental recognition that things are really not going to be the way they were,” Berry says. “Facing that reality means they’re going to have to embrace a strategy to changing how they do business. That’s an important first step — recognizing that the ground has shifted and we need to find different ways of doing things. What we’ve been saying is that companies need to be looking seriously at how they take their instinct product lines and adapt them and diversify them to other markets so they’re not so dependent on single-source customers.

“Diversifying their portfolio is an important strategy for avoiding the kind of massive negative impacts we’ve seen over the last year.”

Technology and education, as would be expected, can also play a role in increasing your business. Several experts discussed how the advantage of companies that are owned and operated in the United States is the technology that is developed in the United States. Domestic manufacturers continue to be at the forefront when it comes to utilizing technology in their processes, a trend that will only continue. To ensure that the technology is operated correctly and efficiently, workers should be more educated than they were 40, 20, even 10 years ago, and with so many quality workers still unemployed, there is a deep talent pool from which to hire.

How you handle all of that now might be the difference between a quicker return to profitability and increased production, and the far less appealing option of a long struggle back to respectability and some small sense of comfort in the market.

Most important, though, is to do everything with the long term — and that refers to years and decades, not just months and quarters — in mind.

“One of the big unknown changes that everyone is tracking is what the (oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) means,” Berry says. “It means that we’re more likely to see some more impetus from the federal government on green initiatives and sustainability and probably some more of a push for alternative energy sources and maybe the price of petroleum will go up and have an effect on the economy, too. There is a little bit of uncertainty around the effects of the Gulf and more manufacturing particularly.”

Ask questions

As you prepare for the last months of 2010 and the first months of 2011, it will be important to keep any number of questions in mind. Write them down. Type them and print them out. Keep a copy on your desk. Distribute copies to your executive team, perhaps even all of your employees. Just keep them in mind. No matter how well you know your business and your industry, that list of questions will be as important now as it has ever been.

And just what questions should make the list? Well, a lot will depend on your industry, your goals and your financial standing at the moment, but there are some questions that all businesses need to be asking right now. And those are: What is happening in your industry? Is it expanding or contracting? Is your company expanding or contracting? Where do you see your company in 2015? In 2020? Is your company in the right market? Is it in the right position in the market? What are the strengths and expertise that your company has that could be adapted to another market or product line? Where can you turn to think through your situation? Will your company be able to receive a large enough line of credit during the next year? Will you be able to fund your growth? How sustainable are the current demands? And, the great unknown, how will global events affect your company?

“It depends on what happens in global markets, the value of the euro, whether our companies are disadvantaged,” Berry says. “I think we’re going to see a slow, gradual recovery that’s threatened by what’s happening in Europe. Folks are kind of cautiously optimistic.”

With all of that in mind, you will also need to consider whether your supply chain will be able to respond to the innovative approaches required for future growth and success, which means supply chain capabilities and locations become more important. The demographics of your work force are also important, especially with a generation of baby boomers still on the brink of retirement. And innovation is important, too. How will you move ideas from the collective mind of your company to the drawing board to the marketplace? Live in the present but remain focused on the future.

“Eyes on the future, but remember the volatility of this market,” DeRocco says. “There’s a constant threat to every business sector and there are some very large factors in play right now that will determine manufacturers’ cost structure for continued operations, so they’re keeping an eye on all of those — public policy, the global impacts around the world, certainly the European financial crisis.

“Every one of those issues has an impact and creates new challenges for manufacturers operating in that environment.”