I don't want to offer up any predictions, even though I finished the college bowl season with a 20-12 record against the spread. (That's how my wife's extended family celebrates the holiday season, and as long as I keep up with my debts, I'm happy to play along.) So let's offer up some observations that will grow in importance for metal fabricators over the next 12 months.
More fab shops are going to consider robotic welding in lieu of trying to chase new welders. The technology has evolved to the point where CAD drawings are used to help program the robots for jobs, which means you won't spend as much time to teach the robot its movements as it would to run the short to medium-sized job. Also, the price of robots has come down in recent years, making the automation even more attractive. It's not that unusual today to go into a full-service fabrication shop and see a welding cell running on its own.
It's a part of lean manufacturing, but it's really more about customer service. It's vendor-managed inventory programs, in which metal fabricators visit customers on a regular basis and replenish inventory so that a stock number of metal-fabricated components are available for the customer's production run. The last three fabrication shops I"ve visited are either already involved in this type of program or thinking about such a program. It's a great way to help the customer remove cost from its production operations, but also make a fab shop an indispensable part of the supply chain.
The illegal immigrant issue could affect fabricating shops in a big way, depending on state and national law-making
activities. No matter which side of the argument you sit on—send them home, let them become citizens, let them
attain guest-worker status, or turn your head and whistle Dixie—you can't deny that these visitors to the U.S. are working in shops all over this country. If a governmental institution gets serious about checking documents and punishing employers, these workers will disappear like ghosts into the night. Oklahoma has gotten aggressive in weeding illegal immigrants out of the work force, and the results might be indicative of what will happen across the U.S. if Congress enacts similar legislation.
Ever heard of search engine optimization? You soon will, because Internet Web sites will be as important as ever. If your company isn't coming up in Google searches, you"re failing to reach hundreds of potential customers. Does your Web site have images of sample fabrications? Does it contain contact information so that people can submit RFQs? Does the Web site go beyond just spouting about what the company is and delve into what the company can do for customers? A New Year resolution should be to sharpen up the company Web site.
Don't expect any direction when it comes to navigating today's economic news. Twenty-four-hour news networks and the Internet make even the smallest bits of economic data known to the world. And all it takes is one to drive a drove of other lemmings over the cliff.
Stay suspicious. Stay calm. Stay away from CNBC in 2008.