How would you describe the U.S. plastics machinery industry this year? Would you call it merely slow? How about abysmal?
For injection molding presses, U.S. shipments of around 1,200-1,300 in 2009 set a modern-day record ... for lousy sales. It's sobering to think that the United States, once a powerhouse market of 5,000-6,000 injection molding machines sold per year, has slumped down closer to the 1,000 mark.
In this issue, you'll read how more than 60 machinery executives described 2009. Most expect 2010 to be better but how much, nobody really knows.
From fears of a global financial meltdown in late 2008 to the brutal recession, to layoffs, foreclosures and plant closings, it has been a history-making year for business news hopefully a year never to be repeated. As 2009 winds down, hardly anyone expects a strong rebound in 2010; it's more likely to be a very tepid upturn.
There is still plenty of uncertainty for American manufacturing and the overall economy.
Yes, the Federal Reserve and Congress have stabilized financial markets. Yes, businesses have worked inventories down to the bone and they need to build them back up, which should soak up some of the huge amount of unused production capacity.
But for businesspeople, Washington is adding to the uncertainty about market conditions in the coming year:
* Health-care reform could jack up employer costs.
* Cap-and-trade pollutant-emissions legislation could make energy prices skyrocket in the Midwest, the industrial heartland that depends on coal-fired electricity.
* The proposed Employee Free Choice Act would let unions organize without a secret-ballot election by workers.
President Barack Obama and Congress debate, but you don't hear them saying much about manufacturing or about how the U.S. economy is based too much on consumption, imports and piling up debt, instead of producing goods and innovation.
America should learn a lesson from the financial crisis. Wall Street put mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps up on a pedestal. Bright people dreamed them up. See where that got us?
The panic and fear may be over. But we need leaders to spell out a future for U.S. manufacturing by stressing the importance of engineering, technology, research and development.
We consume too much (much of it made in China) and produce too little. There's a sense that we're falling behind. That has to change. Maybe this painful recession can jump-start a new way of thinking: We have to make things in this country.
A few executives in the beleaguered injection press sector actually expect some customers to buy new machines to replace old ones in 2010. This would be good news a sign that the broader U.S. plastics processing industry sees a future and is willing to modernize, not just scrabble along trying to survive.
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