The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division is a unit in transition. And it is not alone in its travails. Many other industry groups and event organizers are struggling with similar challenges.
The key question: how best to move forward into the new millennium — stick to core competencies, or broaden your scope and aim to appeal to a wider constituency? Both paths have their risks and, presumably, their rewards.
The falloff in attendance at this year's SPD gathering was the subject of much debate and quiet consternation during its otherwise successful and well-received meeting March 29-April 1 in St. Louis. Last year's conference and new-product competition in Irvine, Calif., attracted more than 375, and the organizers' aggressive goal for this year's event in lower-cost middle America was upwards of 600. About 275 came. Many other industry events this year also have seen attendance drop.
Participants cited many possible reasons for SPD's shortfall: overriding business pressures to contain costs; a booming economy that has most too busy pumping out parts to attend conventions; scheduling conflicts with other industry events; industry consolidation, which means fewer players; St. Louis' lack of appeal; and an attempt to reach out to new industry segments, which has diluted the program's content for some old-guard members.
The first three suggestions carry the most weight. Many participants said they seldom have felt such pressure to contain costs, and there is no question that many plants are running flat-out, trying to keep up with demand. Those that aren't, suggested one attendee, are running fast to find business.
This year's SPD meeting clashed head-on with the North American Material Handling Show and Forum in Detroit, which meant many big structural foam pallet makers that are SPD regulars, instead spent the week in Motown.
But the biggest issue, really, for all industry groups, relates to defining their own strategic direction. As the economy, markets and players change, many trade associations and business units are challenged to remain current and vital to their constituents.
SPD, to its credit, continues to push the envelope in this regard. This year's meeting featured its first evidence of partnership with the education-oriented Society of Manufacturing Engineers. The all-day Sunday session included practical workshops organized by SME's Rapid Prototyping Association and its Plastics Molders & Manufacturers Association. In addition, the Industrial Designers Society of America's Materials & Processes Section held its spring meeting that Sunday, in conjunction with the SPD conference.
This supply-chain orientation, encouraging involvement from parts designers through to original equipment manufacturers, is truly enlightened. But SPD's organizers are finding that sometimes it's tough to make even good ideas work.
Two longtime members complained that the program now contains so little directly relating to their primary business of structural foam molding that the meeting's relevance is diluted for them. And therein lies the risk in diversifying.
SPD's leaders rightly see the greater risk in standing still. At the same time, the challenge — for all industry bodies aiming to serve a special-interest group — is to select your mission and do it well, and not spread yourself too thin trying to be all things to all people.