Partly sunny with a chance of manufacturing growth

Content manager Bob Vavra shares his views on the similarities between weather and manufacturing in his January/February 2012 In Conclusion column.

02/16/2012


Bob Vavra, Content Manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media LLCWeather is not an exact science. Few of them are, as it turns out, but weather is the one that gets its own segment on the nightly newscast. In recent years, we’ve seen global radar and digital displays turn the weather into its own little three-minute multi-media presentation.

Behind the glitz is the actually science, of course, Meteorology is a lot more than looking out the window at the clouds or sticking a finger up in the air – let alone consulting grandma’s hyperactive bunion or grandpa’s trick knee. People study the data and form an opinion about what’s going to happen next. The stereotypes about weathermen aside, if four people in the same town tell you it’s going to snow tomorrow, it’s a good idea to have your shovel ready.

The weather forecast for manufacturing is partly sunny, according to most experts we’ve surveyed for the 2012 Forecast issue at Plant Engineering. More importantly, the storm front is passing, the skies are clearing and there are better days ahead in the long-range forecast. These aren’t hopeful wishes; they are data-driven, reasoned outlooks for our immediate future. If nothing else, they should make us want to want to get out and do a few more things.

The time for waiting for the storm to pass is over. It’s time to invest in manufacturing, to travel and explore the rest of the world for potential new markets, to take a few minutes to appreciate the sunshine and warmth.

It’s never warm enough for some people, of course, and a return to full prosperity will take more time. That’s no reason not to get ready. It’s the same reason we do spring cleaning each year. We do it to get prepared for the summer – so we won’t have to waste a minute of the warmth on preparation we could have done earlier.

It’s time, now, to start evaluating your operation. (It actually was time about a year ago when we first saw the signs of rebirth in manufacturing.) It’s time to study our four major areas for operational improvement for 2012:

  • Safety: Is there any reason you cannot make safety the top priority for you and your organization in 2012? The potential for cost savings and operational efficiency is so great, and the cost for a lack of safety so enormous, that it must be a financial imperative for every plant. But safety is first about people, and if you do not value your employees, no amount of cost savings will earn their loyalty.

  • Maintenance: The best plants deliver high output at low overall costs. Like safety, I believe maintenance is a profit center. It delivers productivity with little waste and high quality. Make this the year that you devise and execute a maintenance strategy.

  • Energy: Here’s a budget line item that has been transferred from Accounts Payable to the plant manager’s domain. Managing energy costs represent the single greatest opportunity to reduce your day-to-day operational costs, and yet it is just starting to get the attention it deserves. The economics of the day demand that you look at electrical power, fossil fuels and compressed air as cost centers to be managed and not bills to be paid.

  • People: You have time to train and develop your staff, and you have a need to scout and recruit new talent. You have to be proactive on both fronts. Don’t wait for a performance gap or an unexpected retirement or resignation to spur you into action. The best time to look for a job is when you have one; the best time to find new workers is before you need them.

I think we’ve sat inside long enough, waiting for things to get better. Even if the winds do change, all of these efforts above will help weather the next storm, and the one after that. We’re going to spend this year talking about each of these areas in great depth in print, and each day at our Website, PlantEngineering.com. I think the opportunities are greater than the challenges, and those manufacturers who seize the opportunities in 2012 will be the ones basking in the sun this time next year.

Being a Midwestern boy, I often get asked about Chicago winters. I tell people I’ve come to appreciate Chicago winters if for no other reason than they make me appreciate Chicago summers all the more.

It’s now springtime for manufacturing. Winter is over, and if there are a few chilly and rainy days left, that shouldn’t stop us from looking ahead. Summer is just around the corner.

Vavra is the content manager for Plant Engineering magazine.