Day one at ATExpo - "stuff about making stuff"
by Philip Stoten
Sep 29, 2004
This event started as all events do with a keynote address - this time in the heartland of America, the speaker was John Ratzenberg, star of Cheers and his own "Made in America" TV show.
John is clearly a patriot and has visited lots of factories throughout the USA in the making of his TV series. He told a packed audience of his youth, growing up in a blue-collar environment where, as he so articulately put it, "people made stuff, all kind of stuff". He strongly believes that this manufacturing base had led to the sense of community he now sees lacking in the USA. He talked about how hard work was hard, but ennobling and how in the manufacturing area he lived in people had skills that made them better neighbors, helping each other fix whatever needed fixing...
John blames the big box stores for part of this decline, bringing tougher price competition to the market and eventually overseas sourcing. What followed cost the livelihood of many manufacturing workers.
John shared with us some of his experiences in visiting factories with a film crew, pointing out some of the interesting trends he spotted along the way. An example of this is "the smaller the company, the better the lunch", another was "the further the publicist was from the factory, the further their spin on the factory was from reality". I guess what this is really about is the creeping trends of globalization on the US economy and its effect on the connect, or more often disconnect, between the owners of the business and those who worked in the business...
John gave an articulate presentation of what automation, globalization and competition had done to America's manufacturing base.
Out on the floor
ATExpo is an interesting show, but in many ways it is more than just one show. The electronics manufacturing community is pretty much confined to one third of this event, with wire harnessing and robotics contributing in the other areas. This distinct parts seem quite separate and, indeed, I did not set foot in the other halls today - maybe tomorrow.
The mood on the assembly hall floor was a good one. Exhibitors had returned fresh from the summer and had seen their order books looking fuller than for many years. Most had seen the normal trend in August as the edge came off demand, but were pleased to see it return strongly in September.
Of course, many of the companies exhibiting are global players, so their optimism is not confined to the US market, but when pushed, they confirmed that whilst they enjoyed the greatest demand in China, demand in the US was buoyant too.
I am curious to see how much of the demand in the US, and in fact in Europe, comes as a result of investment in new equipment being held off for so long in the downturn. Clearly the investment cycle has been disturbed by the complete shut off of investment in 2001 and 2002. And if everyone who was due to renew equipment in the three years of 2001 to 2004 has done so this year, who will invest next year?
Other regions are clearly very different - China, India, Eastern Europe and South America are clearly not in an update cycle - this is investment in new capacity.
The differing demands of the global regions are often reflected in what exhibitors bring to the trade shows, and this show is no different. High mix, low volume seems to be the order of the day. Here we can see products that are smaller and more agile being presented, compared to those on offer at events like Nepcon Shanghai.
In terms of technology, lead-free continues to be a subject for discussion and for many a product launch. However, when I ask how many people are investing and committing, I hear something different. It seems that most of the talk about lead-free is just that "talk", with a lot of companies waiting as long as they can to invest in it. Many know they will be forced to do so, but would prefer to leave it as late as possible to commit. I hope the 2006 ban does not sneak up on people.