On the flight home from the Fencetech trade show and conference in Orlando, Fla., I admired the creativity of a plastics injection molder who decided to take out an ad in, of all places, American Airlines' AmericanWay magazine.
The company made it known that it is seeking new projects. It is willing, the ad read, to amortize tooling over production runs and offers no charge for tooling on higher-production runs.
The ad illustrates a salient point, that the world economy and the state of manufacturing in the United States together are demanding refined, creative decisions and action from shop owners and managers. Nowhere was this more apparent than the show floor at Fencetech.
The general mood was, at best, melancholy. Attendance numbers were up from last year, but 2009 also is the year most officials would like to forget, unless you count 2008.
It's no surprise to anyone that there was a bigger international presence, with several firms from China showcasing vinyl profiles. I met with officials from an Australian firm who hoped to find a market for their injection molded gate hinges. Officials from the Netherlands said the grueling flight will have been worth it if they, too, can get their product into the U.S. market.
Will creativity work in this new economic reality? Housing starts are down; most officials are relying on the remodeling market and commercial construction to buoy demand. No longer is money cheap and starts aplenty. Instead, companies have to get savvy and do it quickly with squeezes from all sides. Plastic products targeted for the building and construction market are facing an onslaught of problems. There is vitriol against vinyl for environmental reasons. Composite decking has experienced its share of failures, pushing some manufacturers to retool, rebrand and rethink how the industry has positioned itself. And need we even discuss the impact of price increases?
The mood is vastly different from one decade ago when I began covering this beat and housing starts were booming.
Maybe, at this point, a somber mood is what the industry needs. Perhaps those serving the building and construction market can learn a lesson from the heyday that fat and happy times are fleeting. What goes up must come down and a gradual, steady climb in starts may be the best solution.
The phoenix, after all, will rise again. It's just had its wings clipped.
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