Running counter to the torrent of horrible economic news, my contacts across industry have been regaling me recently with tales of not being able to keep up with orders. These contacts, who have asked to remain unnamed in this column (for obvious reasons), work for a variety of company types - electronics distributors, automation and controls manufacturers, and materials manufacturers and suppliers. The common thread across all discussions was the incredible pace of business they have been experiencing for several months now.
Now, I'm sure it's probably crossed your mind that these folks are just blowing smoke my way because they want me, as an editor, to think nothing but positive thoughts about their company. But most of these guys are the same people who were telling me how bad things were looking last year. Many were quite concerned about their future prospects.
When asked where this surge of business is coming from, I fully expected to hear what I've been hearing for several years - Asia. For some time now, the responses I've heard about business generation have run along the track of: "The majority of our business growth is coming from (insert the name of an Asian country here)." ?Today, I'm hearing that a significant amount of business is coming from North America, and not so much Canada and Mexico, but from the U.S. Make no mistake, the lion's share of growth for these companies is still Asia-centric, but the resurgence domestically has taken nearly everyone by surprise.
The trick has been pinpointing the reason for this surge. Has it resulted from the federal stimulus? Are U.S. factories finally updating equipment on a large scale? Has there been a surge in specific types of exports?
Responses to these questions seem to indicate that it's a little bit of all the above and not a whole lot of any one particular reason.
One somewhat troubling issue I have heard frequently is that some of the difficulty U.S.-based companies have been having keeping up with orders is due to the fact that they can't get their orders filled fast enough by suppliers. Over the past couple of years, as the U.S. retreated, China and other Asian nations forged ahead. Many companies in Asia are now the primary customers for many suppliers. The end effect has been that some Western companies are no longer many suppliers' number one or number two customer. In some cases, they've moved to being number three or four. These are not small or mid-sized companies being relegated to third and fourth place. These are major, global concerns headquartered in the U.S. and Europe.
Since the announcement in August that China had surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy, this news probably doesn't come as much of a surprise. But it does raise the question: What are we to do about it? On one hand, there really is nothing we can do to turn back the clock - economies are always in flux and no one region or country will forever be on top.
From the standpoint of a designer who creates many of the products that help drive the economy, what are your thoughts on this topic? There's an ongoing discussion at our Systems & Product Design Engineering group on LinkedIn at: http://linkd.in/DNeconomy.
Both traditional automation companies and startups are developing technologies to improve processes on the factory floor, while smart sensors and other IoT-related technologies are improving how products are handled during transport and across the supply chain.
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