Category Archives: Current Events

Machining Show Business

I attended PMTS, the exhibition put on by the Precision Products Association last week, not really to sell screw machines, but to learn and connect. Accomplishing this goal gave me a satisfaction and closure that I’ve never felt before at a show. Here’s the crux of what I learned.

This was the happiest crowd I’ve ever seen at an event of this type. The endless mope of the last recession finally has drifted away.  Nobody mentioned losing work to China which was a theme for so long. The prevailing vibe was that big companies are finding China a scary place to make large bets. Costs are converging with America finally, and production mistakes and logistical headaches make China a wash as far as costs go. The Trump tariffs cut both ways as far as competitiveness is concerned, but they do emphasize the uncertainties of depending on a competitor for crucial production. “I’ll make it in China,” used to be an automatic response by large corporations to a production requirement. Today it isn’t. This does not mean a torrent of work is coming back, but it is more than a trickle. The major point is that the gutting of American manufacturing has ended, and the mood of suppliers has changed to positive.

Another nonissue for PMTS participants was the worker shortage. In three days of connecting with participants I never heard it mentioned. My sense is that owners and companies are adjusting to the employee scarcity. Interest in robots is keen for the dumb jobs that used to require thoughtless loading and unloading. Robotics programming and training is a hot category. Recycling 5- to 10-year-old refugee robots is getting to be an important business category.

Lloyd, Noah, and Rex at the PMTS 2019 Graff-Pinkert Booth

Lloyd, Noah, & Rex at the PMTS 2019 Graff-Pinkert Booth

The large number of young people attending makes me think they are starting to get intrigued by interesting factory work and becoming disenchanted with piling up debt in four-year collegiate programs. I also saw more women who have moved into shop floor work and supervision. It is still a piddling percentage, but growing.

I found it odd that the machine tool behemoths like Mazak, DMG-MORI, Okuma, and Doosan chose not to display. They seemingly blow millions of bucks on IMTS and then claim poverty for off-year shows like PMTS. This leaves the field open for specialty builders to make a big pitch for capex budgets.

Davenport made a splash with their CNC multi-spindle. Many old Davenport folk gasped at the $345,000 price tag, but compared to European 20mm multis the price looked provocative. They sold two the first day.

All of the Swiss CNC folks showed except Tornos. The field is crowded, with Citizen, Star, and Tsugami hogging most of the market.  Citizen folk were beaming as they were coming off their best year ever, their fiscal year having ended just a few days before in March.

Reflecting the boom in Swiss sales, Kevin Meehan of Edge was ebullient about his past year, selling record numbers of FMB and Taiwanese bar loaders and hiring the staff needed to get them out the door and install them.

Yet this was not a crowd of people jumping for joy and putting up new factories. The folks I talked to were pleased but not complacent. Nobody wanted to talk politics, which was not the case during the later Obama years. OSHA was never mentioned.  People wanted to buy stuff, update, improve, but not add square footage. They wanted to buy shops to get customers and employees, not bricks and roofing. It was a Midwestern crowd, an increase over previous years in Columbus, Ohio. I think that was not an indictment of Columbus, but a reflection of happier times and greater convenience.

Hopefully the 2021 PMTS will show similar trends and even greater optimism.

Question: Do you still go to trade shows? Why?

 

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The Hole in China’s Apple

A tiny gecko can literally climb up sheer glass.

A team of robotics geeks in Denmark thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could mimic the gecko in a robot’s gripper? Wouldn’t that be a great product?

They accomplished just that and started a company in Odense, Denmark to sell their gecko gripper, called OnRobot.

Odense, home of Universal Robots, is the robotics incubator of the world. Poetically enough, it is also where Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales. The gecko gripper concept grew from a research paper written at Stanford University in Palo Alto, which was picked up by NASA as having the potential for retrieving satellites in space. The folks in Odense saw its potential.

Would this have happened in Shanghai?

Recently, things have become quite ugly for China after 30 years of almost unimaginable growth. The Chinese leadership, starting with Deng Xiaoping, has been almost maniacal in pushing growth in China.  With shrewd planning, an industrious and hungry population, heavy borrowing, and a knack for stealing and copying the hard-won knowledge of their competitors in the United State and Europe, they have continued their ascent.

Shanghai is not Palo Alto, California, or Odense, Denmark. Companies like Huawei and ZTE have become electronics giants in recent years by developing copycat products based on intellectual property theft and industrial espionage while playing footsie with bad actors like Iran. This has been abetted by the Chinese government, which has afforded them immense lending resources as part of China’s extraordinary rush to catch up to the United States and ultimately surpass America in almost every way possible.

The Chinese leaders did not have time for the kind of entrepreneurial organic growth of a Universal Robots or OnRobot. They wanted to leapfrog the agonizing trial and error and market flops that little startups have. So Huawei and ZTE and countless other firms stole their way to the top.

They did not have to try that hard to do it. Many large firms virtually handed the Chinese their intellectual property in exchange for market opportunity. Apple’s current falling earnings are a direct result of weakening iPhone sales in China as their competitors are making nice copies for half the price. The only edge Apple has left is their high-class brand, but that apple is now more than half eaten.

Apple was not naïve about China. Its gamble was that they would make billions of dollars in China before the intellectual property theft really bit, and then they would use that money to fund research which would net the next generation of killer phones or some other monster product.

The Chinese leadership’s gamble was that the American leadership would make the same short-range gamble as Apple. In exchange for gaining lucrative markets for America’s relatively cheap commodities, the U.S. would allow intellectual property theft without retribution and the looting of the American and Western European industrial complexes by subsidized ones in China. For example, the Chinese steel industry has grown to be by far the world’s biggest, and yet it is hopelessly inefficient, as the government has run it as a make-work project for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum have hurt American companies who use the materials, many of whom are our customers, as well as the Chinese. The Huawei case in which the founder’s daughter is the mouse who was caught in the trap in Vancouver, Canada, is as clear a signal as America can send to China — that things finally are changing.  It is starting to get uncomfortable for both the U.S. and China as the stalemate continues to bite.

Both countries have a huge amount at stake in the trade talks going on right now in Washington.  Shanghai is not Palo Alto.  It is not Odense. What is being exposed to the world at this moment is that despite the enormous growth in China over the last 30 years and its overarching ambition to surpass America in every way, it is weak at its core. It can be seen as similar to Japan in 1990.  Many futurists saw Japan surpassing the U.S. at that point, but despite America’s missteps, like the Iraq War, it did not happen.

China does not innovate. It mostly copies and steals intellectual property.  Its education system does not produce risk takers.  Nonconformists often end up in jail. I believe the top leaders in China understand this is a profound weakness, but it is extremely hard to address it because doing so would undermine the soft foundation of the country — economically, socially, and politically.

I think Donald Trump, the New York real estate developer and gut puncher, gets this. The amiable Bushes, Clinton, and Obama seemingly did not understand China’s basic weakness and refused to play the strong hand that they had.

The big question ahead of us is will Trump play his strong hand too aggressively and screw up the world economy, or will he find a path to a compromise? The Fed’s recent pullback on interest rate hikes was its statement that they are worried that the whole poker table might collapse.

Question: What copycat or knockoff products have you purchased?

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Legalize Pot, Why?

By Lloyd Graff

The big push is on all over the country to legalize recreational marijuana. My gut reaction is that I am appalled, but I’ve been reading up on the topic to see if I am just an old fuddy-duddy teetotaler or if there is a good reason to oppose and fear it. It also has real ramifications in the machining industry with hiring decisions. Will drug testing for cannabis become obsolete or forbidden?

Since Canada has legalized the sale of marijuana, as have states like Washington and Colorado, pot has become hot. Canadian pot companies like Tilray have gone public and their value has gone up tenfold in a matter of months. Tobacco companies, beer and wine behemoths, and investors like Peter Thiel, who made billions on Facebook, have bet big on Canadian cannabis. Politicians and lobbyists in every state have joined the frenzy to rack up loot on pot.

If you are an agnostic speculator it may be a dream come true.  If you’ve made your fortune on booze or cigarettes why not get in early on a potential legal addiction play? But if you aren’t in the addiction business why should we make it easy for my 13-year-old granddaughter to vape, or to snack on cannabis brownies after school?

In recent days, writer Malcolm Gladwell and former Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Berenson, now a successful mystery writer, have come out with prominent pieces discussing the dangers of marijuana usage.  Both men sound the alarm about the relationship between pot usage and violent behavior.

The statistics in Washington State, Finland, and Denmark definitely point to an increase in reported murders and other violent crimes after the drug was legalized. Is murder unequivocally associated with legalization? No, but analytics point in that direction. The published literature appears to show a distinct relationship between increased instances of schizophrenic and bipolar people acting out violently after using marijuana. This may account for the significant rise in the criminal violence stats.

Another concerning trend is the widespread breeding of marijuana plants to yield a much higher content of the compound THC, which is much more potent than the garden variety bootlegged for so many years. These designer compounds have been touted for the amelioration of nausea in chemotherapy patients and potentially for therapy for Alzheimer’s, depression, Parkinson’s, and other maladies.

There does appear to be evidence that there is a medical rationale for cannabis use, but Anheuser-Busch and the Marlboro Man are not investing in pot companies to stop patients from shaking.

The intersection of mental illness, marijuana usage, and violent behavior is probably the most troubling aspect of the legalization of cannabis.  But as a business person, I am fearful of the widespread use of pot by potential employees in a legalized world.  I know a lot of people use pot now, knowing that the penalties for usage are a slap on the wrist in most cases.  However, if it is illegal, there are a lot of folks who will not make the extra effort to obtain a verboten substance that may harm them.

To me, the bottom-line question is:  What good does it do to legalize it?  Cash-starved states like Illinois might get substantial revenue from taxing it, but is that a good reason for sanitizing it for 13-year-olds by removing the stigma of illegality? In the political frenzy to legalize it, the talk about pot being a gateway drug to even more-addictive drugs like heroin or opiates has quieted.  It does scare me that giving millions of people access to it in vaping parlors could be a public health disaster in America.

Why should we do this?  Give me a good reason why it would be good for you or your children – or the country – to legalize the stuff.

Question:  Why should we legalize pot in the U.S.?

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