Feeling Steady?

By Lloyd Graff

I talk to clients in the machining business almost every day. I often ask the perfunctory question, “How’s business?” and I usually get the perfunctory answer back – “It’s steady.” Then I chuckle to myself. I’ve never known business to be “steady.” It’s always bouncing one way or the other. The national economic statistics may show little change from month to month because the ups and downs of various segments will negate one another, but trends are always shifting. Nothing is constant. One of the things that keeps me continually fascinated with business and keeps me up at night is the opening and closing of windows of opportunity.

A small business lives and dies by identifying those mysterious windows of opportunity, devising plans to take advantage of them and then having the courage to act before the imagined windows shut with a chilling thud.

Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate magnate, just came out with his autobiography. Through the years he has been uncanny in seeing the business opportunities opening up before his competitors and anticipating the trends that might devastate the value of his properties. Zell has bought and sold a hundred malls. Now he is hating Amazon.

Tennis sneaker legend Stan Smith. Flickr/adifansnet. Courtesy of Business Insider

In case you might not have noticed, Amazon and Internet retailing have absolutely devastated medium-sized shopping centers and malls. Department store companies are reeling. Retailing icons like JCPenney and Macy’s are considering bankruptcy.

On the other hand, restaurants and take-out joints, food trucks and martini bars are thriving. People are consuming food and experiences while tending to pass on buying more stuff. Zell may not like it but he gets it, and he is trying to repurpose malls into health care facilities and gyms.

Lacrosse is now the latest hot sport in the U.S., golf is in the toilet, and Mark Fields was just canned as the head of Ford despite the immense profits of the F-150 truck. Evidently Bill Ford and family felt he did not move rapidly enough into autonomous cars and electric vehicles. Opening and closing windows, depending on your point of view.

Business is about being blindsided. Volcanoes seldom erupt but they are constantly moving closer or further from a blowout.

I read today that the white sneaker boom has recently deflated. Honestly, I didn’t even know that white sneakers have been hot for the last five years. The Adidas franchise on Stan Smith tennis shoes has gone cold, folks. I hate to date myself again, but I was a Stan Smith fan before he won Wimbledon in 1972 and teamed with Bob Lutz to become the best tennis doubles team in the world. To most folks today, Stan Smiths are just white tennis shoes worn by women trying to be trendy. Stan had a terrific serve up the middle, by the way. One of the big questions for every business person is should you search for the opening windows or just be content to play your everyday game, hoping your day will eventually prevail over time. Do you wear your Stan Smiths that you bought in 1972 until they wear out and then buy another pair? Why not? Well, you might very well go broke in those 14 years that everybody forgot about Sam Smiths except Adidas and old Stan living down at Hilton Head.

In the screw machine world, perhaps you ran those good old #2 Brown and Sharpes while the rest of the world bought Citizens. Maybe those Brownies will finally have their day again in 2019. Maybe their bronze gears will last until the machine is bronzed.

Younger people may be better at identifying opening windows of opportunity, but their lack of experience and perspective can also work against them. Businesses that have a dialogue between young and old participants may have a better chance to distinguish between promise and illusion. But for gear heads who believe business can actually be steady, life is always going to be as hard as stainless steel.

Question: Is 3D printing a window that’s opening or closing?

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8 thoughts on “Feeling Steady?

  1. Peter Schroth

    Very thought provoking. I recently had a person approach us about bearings for fidget spinners, not the type of bearing we make but jumping on a fad does have some allure.
    I like to say use the right tool for the job, 3D printing is another tool in a manufacturers tool box. Not much value for us but for a consumer products designer or a plastic molder it is golden.

  2. Lloyd Graff

    We have a customer contemplating huge orders for e cigarettes. Vape, Gape, who cares, but one man’s narcotic is another man’s cheese.
    Is cannabis the next Greek yogurt or just a poor substitute for bubble gum. Open windows, Aspergers Toys, business is always ahard game to play, Peter.

  3. rick

    Life is full of cycles.

    We as manufacturing & industrial engineers know the right tool for the right job. There are infinite methods and processes. This is just another tool in the arsenal.

    We must realize that as technology continually advances, production costs and time will be reduced. This will always increase competition, separating wheat from chaff.

    There is no way that a 3D printing process can keep up with high volume production methods including injection molding. (perhaps used some day in the mold making process) As I see it, 3D printing has its place in prototyping, repairs, and limited short runs. Perhaps some jig & fixture applications.

    On a very positive note, It does return to the general public the un-monitored opportunity to manufacture their own guns, components, and ammunition magazines, including standard and large capacity. It gives back a bit of our freedom from government intervention into our God given right of self preservation and protection of our family. As the Founders stated: “…Shall NOT be infringed!”

    As the costs of 3D printing continue to drop so dramatically it is now an item that will find itself going from a novelty to a standard appliance in more & more households. Useful for creating toys, hobbies, and to repair and/or replace components lost or broken on all of the cheap Chinese products people buy today…

  4. Art Santana

    3D printing remains me so much of the driverless cars; amazing ideas that have such a hard time getting them pas the conceptual stages. I know it has come a long way but I agree with Peter, just don’t see it taking over good old fashion machining. in our lifetime. Even soft materials are much easily produced with injection molding. I had the opportunity to tour Lifetime Products and seeing how they make a 12 foot kayak in a manner of single digit minutes; 3D print those things? How long? Ughffff!
    Cannabis the next great thing? hardly believe so, I was in Portland last week to visit my daughter and saw first hand how all those dispensary stores are popping up in every corner; I think they are trying to replace/substitute the old liquor stores, that is all. And no, did not see much activity around those places, they will weed (pun intended) out each other.

  5. allen

    Ah yes, predicting the future. Endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating which is understandable. Everyone’s looking for an edge and getting the jump, by accurately predicting the future, is quite an edge. Sadly, predicting the future with any regularity looks to be awfully tough.

    Most of the successes, when examined closely appear to be more of the “bumblebee” variety, i.e. “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway”.

    That sort of indifference to the widely-assumed is generally the province of the young since, in general, they don’t know any better but also because they tend to not have that much to lose. It’s also genetic since us guys are predisposed to take big, even stupid, risks.

    But the lesson isn’t “he who dares, wins”. Rather it’s “we obviously don’t know as much as we assume we do”. Bumblebees, after all, do fly so it’s our understanding of aerodynamics that’s faulty and not the courageous indifference of bumblebees to the tired, old status quo.

    In answer to your question, who the heck knows?

    The history of technology is littered with exciting “windows of opportunity” filled with a brick wall.

    Remember the Wankel rotary? How about fluidics? Magnetic bubble memory? Virtual reality? Oh wait, it’s not quite clear yet that last item is going to amount to nothing.

    It appears to require a impossible-to-predict combination of elements to achieve commercial success. “Impossible” because no one’s name is spoken with the fear that Voldermort inspires in the Harry Potter world and someone who could, year in and year out, make accurate technological predictions, would be a fearsome character indeed.

    There are/have been pretenders to that position but it doesn’t take much effort to reveal that their brilliance is based less on their ability to predict technology winners than their willingness to cut lose from technology losers. We’re not at the point where that determination can be made about 3D printing.

  6. Lloyd Graff

    Allen, you are a wonderful writer, literate and perceptive. Thanks for your contributions. I love the bumblebee reference and Wankel engine.

  7. Todd

    Our business is all about throwing material away. We do it with swiss machines, VMC’s, waterjet cutters, lasers and stamping presses. It makes sense to only make something with the material you actually need, rather than excess.

    Metal additive manufacturing has a ways to go to become a practical process for most of our shops. That said, I really do believe there will come a day when we look back in wonder at what we were able to accomplish in the “olden” days before MAM machines were as commonplace as smart phones.

  8. rick

    I have seen 3D printing of buildings with a concrete mixture.

    It is amazing!

    Google it and check it out on youtube.

    I would put up a link,

    HOWEVER – Lloyd take note!

    Whenever I include links supporting my argument or providing additional information for those interested, I get the

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    and are always awaiting , and waiting and waiting and are never seen…


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