By Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor
Two steps forward. One step back. Making your way through the muck of a barnyard economy calls for high boots and careful steps, lest you slip and land right on your depreciating assets.
Farm analogies aside, the lagging financial situation has extended the planting season, when machine builders might normally take advantage of the downtime and retool or investigate new machine control and automation options. But layoffs and reduced work hours have slimmed many companies' staffs to the point where there is no apparent slack in production needs. And the global nature of business has prompted unemployment and manufacturing crises that will continue to affect the industry in stages.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) expects unemployment to increase by around 40-60 million workers globally in 2009, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), forecasts a continued escalation in the global jobless rate, spurred by rampant unemployment hitting the low-income or emerging countries that haven't really begun to feel the pains of the economic crisis quite yet. And the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predict unemployment could rise as high as 10%.
And yet some machine builders are still finding the time to look at new technology and how it might benefit them. Take a look at the different approaches at these three packaging machine builders.
"Over the summer, we spent time evaluating new controls for performance and cost," says Greg Nackers, senior electrical engineer at the CMD Technology Center (www.cmd-corp.com) in Appleton, Wis. "We needed a higher-performance, lower-cost servo control system to stay competitive."
How did CMD find the time? "Our company was proactive and used a voluntary layoff system to save cost but retain all our key employees," explains Nackers. "We have kept an even workload but are now seeing an increase in business and becoming busier than we have been all year." CMD's main focus is on sustainability and green efforts. "Steps have been taken to streamline processes and reduce paperwork," says Nackers. "This saves cost and time. And lean initiatives have been a part of our systems for three or four years already, so that is nothing new for us."
At PMI Cartoning (www.pmicartoning.com) in Elk Grove Village, Ill., engineering versatility and flexibility have had a huge impact on resources. "The goals and principles of our company structure were made in a way so that even the lagging economy hasn't had much impact on our business," explains Branko Bekic, manager of the electrical department at PMI. "The way our personnel are trained and allocated throughout the company gives us the opportunity to move them around and use their expertise in different fields. For example, I like my work as the electrical department manager, but I will not just do my primary function. I also will do work as a controls engineer and work on PLCs, motion and HMI development for new applications. And I will do wiring, if the situation asks for it, and perform service or maintenance calls. The same is true with all other personnel throughout my department and the company."
This method of distributing expertise helps PMI to utilize personnel more effectively. "With the right amount of personnel, with multiple backgrounds and the skills that we are surrounded with at PMI Cartoning, we can keep a low or high demand of work through these times," says Bekic. "On the other hand, from my standpoint as a controls engineer, and manager, my goals are to constantly follow and use new technology that will give me a quick turnaround with new projects."
A packaging machine builder headquartered in the Czech Republic might deal with completely different issues. Pavel Bouška, area sales manager for Velteko (www.velteko.cz) of Vlašim, Czech Republic, says his company hasn't even felt the impact quite yet. "Velteko manufactures vertical form fill and seal packaging machines and accessories in Europe," he says. "Fortunately, our company has not felt the financial crisis so far. As our target customers are mostly from the food industry, we are not yet really affected, but maybe next year."
While Velteko has received fewer inquiries from Western Europe of late, Bouška says his company is running as usual. "There are always ongoing projects for developing new software, new PC control system solutions and products," he says. "And we have just launched our new continual machine, the HSV 120. All of our procedures and lean system are set up satisfactorily, and there is no process improvement in progress. What we have done is increase the size of the sales staff and our sales training because we believe that, during the downturn, there are opportunities to increase our market share."