An industry's ability to measure its own size, growth and impact plays a huge role in others' impressions of that industry's professionalism, economic status and political clout. Recent consumer image-advertising efforts aside, few would dispute that the plastics industry historically has done a miserable job in defining itself.
This inability has cost plastics valuable recognition and respect in many key quarters. After all, how are politicians, economists, investment bankers and Wall Street analysts supposed to attach due importance to plastics when the industry itself cannot provide reliable U.S. sales and production statistics?
Separately, but just as importantly, the lack of such reliable data greatly complicates plastics firms' ability to measure performance and forecast demand in today's global markets. That is why the recent progress in this area by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is so significant. SPI - via its reconstituted Committee on Equipment Statistics - embarked two years ago on an ambitious program to remedy the industry's inaccurate machinery statistics program, which had been withering for years. Previously on this editorial page, we have strongly supported CES as it first created a formal, audited reporting structure and then set about winning the confidence of the very industry players whose data it needed to make this project fly. The skeptics were many - and wholly justified. But CES has hit just about every target it has set for itself so far.
Upward of 98 percent of U.S. injection molding machine suppliers are now reporting, lending a new level of credibility and authenticity to the numbers. Entire new categories of data - across other process types and for various auxiliary equipment and components - are being collected and verified, too.
Several people worked very hard to accomplish this, but none more tirelessly than Lori Anderson, SPI's director of economic and international trade affairs. She made it her personal mission to nudge, cajole, encourage or occasionally threaten the major machinery CEOs around the world to get with the program. Bill Gruber, president of Milacron Inc.'s Ferromatik Milacron North America, also deserves a share of the spotlight. His leadership, combined with Anderson's persistence, planted the seed for a project that finally has taken root but which must continue to be nurtured.
The efforts of CES did not stop with gathering and collating machinery data. The group has added value by juxtaposing those numbers with key U.S. macroeconomic data such as housing starts, automobile sales and gross domestic product. That has injected a useful forecasting element into reports that traditionally have served only as historical snapshots. And the plan calls for quarterly, or perhaps eventually monthly, reports, a la the auto production statistics widely cited in the general business media.
The existence of comprehensive, reliable machinery statistics will help executives both with short-range budgetary planning and long-range strategic planning. Processors and others can tap into much of the information to help assess industry health and growth.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to share comparable statistical information with counterpart organizations in Europe and Asia, to help get a better grasp on global trade trends. And none too soon. It's high time the fourth-largest U.S. manufacturing industry gained a better understanding of just how big and important it is, and shared that with decision makers who will help to shape its future.