Industry Trends Hold Opportunities

The panel addressed opportunities in technology, in new markets as well as opportunities associated with manufacturing challenges.


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Manufacturers face the day to day hurdle of simply staying in business. Staying cost-competitive, managing labor costs, keeping up with customer requirements, meeting performance standards, and certifications, and coping with a number of confusing, conflicting, worker safety and environmental regulations can be overwhelming. Some may look at the future as dark with little or no hope beyond treading water. They may see new technologies as threats.

But there is no need to feel this way. According to findings from a recent panel discussion, new and exciting opportunities are on the horizon. The panel addressed opportunities in technology, in new markets as well as opportunities associated with manufacturing challenges. Panelists included members of the Surface Finishers Educational Association (SFEA), such as Barbara Kanegsberg at BFK Solutions. This column summarizes the highlights from the panel’s discussion. 

New Markets, New Technologies. Looking outside the box and keeping an open mind to new opportunities has proven fruitful for manufacturers that have done so. One manufacturer originally based its product line on a single consumer application. As the market for that application began to diminish, the company started looking into other industries that could use similar technology. It discovered that the potential market was large, including military, health care, and even art.

With additive manufacturing becoming a popular trend, many industry professionals wonder if the process will replace traditional fabrication and surface treatments. The panel concluded that it probably will not. The concept of additive manufacturing is not new and encompasses well-established techniques such as electroforming and thermal spray. We may instead see expanding markets for these other approaches. Also, the fantasy surrounding 3D printing is that the process starts with metal powder and magically prints a complete product ready for shipment to the customer. The consensus is that additive manufacturing is an additional manufacturing technique and not necessarily a replacement since 3D printing produces a different result. 

Water Treatment. Water is an important factor of surface finishing, and all water is not the same. Years ago, there was tap water or distilled water. Now there is soft water, reverse osmosis, deionization, and electrodeionization. Currently, there is a focus on the importance of selecting and managing the correct water for the application.

Water is a valuable, limited resource. In addition, the costs of treating and managing water before, during and after manufacturing may influence process choices and may make recycling, or even total elimination of water discharge to the sewer, a more reasonable option. 

Regulation Frustration. There was a strong sentiment that safety/environmental regulations and controls, while necessary, have gone too far. There are diminishing returns that make it difficult to compete with other countries. 

Several panelists observed an increasing trend toward disjointed environmental regulations in the sense that federal, state and local regulations do not mesh well and that complying with air regulations may make it difficult to comply with water regulations and vice versa. One comment was that it is easier to comply with unreasonable regulations than to try to change them. In order to change regulations, you need a massive amount of grassroots upswell and enough political clout—a Herculean task. 

Energy and Opportunity. One panelist saw opportunities in managing the “tons of energy waste and water waste.” One prediction is that we will do much better in managing energy. This will help to reduce the carbon footprint. This could help us compete with other countries. While the United States may not compete with labor costs, we can with energy.

A Place for the Classics. Participants observed that despite decades of effort to replace certain processes that are under safety/environmental regulatory pressure, the military and aerospace sectors continue to require certain processes, such as cyanide cadmium, hard chrome plating and some chromating. Some panelists said for certain critical applications, there will always be those processes, unless there are superior alternatives.  

 

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