What a difference a couple years can make. The last time we hosted our Plastics News Executive Forum in Las Vegas, in March 2009, there was some very real doubt about the continued existence of one or more of the Big Three U.S. automakers. We hosted sessions with bankruptcy attorneys on how to spot vulnerable suppliers and how to protect your firm from being dragged down with them. The overall theme was how to manage through chaos and uncertainty.
All is not cheery and bright now, for sure but the tone is markedly improved. On Feb. 1 the Institute for Supply Management reported that manufacturing activity overall expanded in January at its fastest pace in seven years. ISM's index hit 60.8, and January marked the 18th straight month of expansion in the manufacturing sector, which bottomed out at an index rating of 33.3 in December 2008.
Plastics machinery orders and shipments overall are up sharply albeit from ungodly low levels the past two years. U.S. stocks topped the psychologically significant 12,000 level recently, and there are signs that employers are starting to hire again, cautiously. In other words, we're all breathing again and focusing on growth rather than consolidation and crisis management.
So that's what we intend to do at our 13th PN Executive Forum, which returns to Las Vegas March 6-9. The program will address topics such as open innovation, design thinking, automotive and macroeconomic prospects, financing, polyolefin and engineering resin trends, b-to-b marketing, and how additive manufacturing has advanced beyond being a rapid-prototyping tool to become a production process in its own right.
A focal point of the event will be leadership development, beginning with a Sunday afternoon workshop March 6, followed by a kickoff session Monday in which consultant Gerald Bell, founder of the Bell Leadership Institute, will engage with senior executives from nine of our previous PN Processor of the Year Award-winning companies. Later in the conference, we will crown our latest POY Award winner, as well as winners of our first PN Excellence Awards.
Tom Kelley, general manager of global design firm IDEO, will explore the keys to innovation along with a diverse panel of plastics officials who are members of the Young Presidents' Organization including an injection and blow molder, a structural foam molder and a film extruder.
Eric Schwartzman, co-author of a new book called Social Marketing to the Business Customer, will explain how social media tools are fundamentally altering traditional supply-chain relationships, while NineSigma Inc. CEO Andy Zynga will discuss how open innovation can provide a strategic advantage.
The program aims to help processors and other plastics companies build on their strengths while identifying ways to drive new growth. And, let's be honest, that's a lot more fun than discussing bankruptcies and consolidation.