I found last week’s Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus an exhilarating and exhausting experience.
It was exhilarating because for the first time in 10 years the participants were confident again. I do not remember one person coming to our humble exhibit and complaining about business. Maybe they grumped about their back or metatarsals, but about business, they were positive. This is an extraordinary shift from even two years ago, and I think it reflects more than just monthly sales figures (which are darn good, by the way). The climate for machining folk has changed. “China” is now considered a long-term competitor, not a monster vacuum sucking up almost every biddable job. The American survivors, and the European, Mexican, Brazilian, Canadians and Fijians too, understand the kind of work they are good at and what the Chinese will devour. There is a relative stalemate with China today. A little comes back, a little goes away. This is stasis that you can borrow money against.
There is no comfort in business. The “comfortable” ultimately die a very uncomfortable death, but the people who are uncomfortable about the present yet confident about their ability to weave and bob into the next few rounds, are the folks who predominated at PMTS.
When I returned to Chicago last Thursday afternoon, Cathy Heller, who runs the spare parts business for Graff-Pinkert, proudly told me she had her second great month in a row selling mainly Wickman tooling and spare parts. Even more significantly, the percentage of surplus oddball parts was unprecedentedly high. This is an indicator that does not show up in The Wall Street Journal stats, but is one of the tea leaves that I monitor.
When our customers are upgrading their tired and haggard 40-year-old multi-spindles, they are dipping into the capacity that has been sitting in the empty ocean containers for the good times they thought would probably never come. Or maybe they are finally changing the spindle bearings of the clunker in the corner they used on the sloppy bushings they used to run before China happened and cars became reliable.
People are still in love with Swiss CNC screw machines. The technology keeps getting just a little bit better every year. Citizen, Star and Tsugami keep slugging it out to get every sale with the Korean and Taiwanese machines close enough to get their pieces. There are not many good used machines available, so the new builders usually do not have to compete with the second hand market.
After eight shows over 16 years, the PMTS Show is leaving Columbus for Cleveland in 2019. The show got the boot because it did not bring enough hotel room buyers to town to justify its prime time slot in the Convention Center. If I am privileged to attend in 2019 I will look back nostalgically on the Ohio capital. The facility was efficient, clean, and not ridiculously pricey. But the chipmakers do not show up in the numbers that the volleyball tournament’s parents and fans do that will supplant PMTS in April of 2019. Volleyball may reign in Columbus, but Cleveland loves us.
Question: Are you winning or losing against China now?