The global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 changed the world. For many businesses, it brought unforeseen problems and unexpected hazards. The pandemic’s effect was uneven; some industries escaped relatively unscathed (outdoor activities) and some even thrived (online shopping) while others, such as traditional manufacturing, witnessed a serious downturn.
To survive the pandemic and even find a measure of success in the middle of it, businesses needed to learn how to pivot. This meant finding a new market, or a new product, or a new area of focus that was seeing increased demand during the pandemic. Pivoting an existing business is a tall order; try something too radical, and the burden on the business will be too much. But if you don’t pivot quickly enough, you risk losing out on a chance to keep your business going and even thriving.
CNC machining companies face a similar choice. As the pandemic continues, machine shop owners need to determine where to focus their efforts. Fortunately, while traditional manufacturing – the mainstay of work for most machining hubs and machine shops – suffered a serious setback, other sectors witnessed increased demand for CNC-machined parts.
By some estimates, reduced manufacturing industry output resulted in over $200 billion lost in 2020, in China, India, Japan, and the US alone. That figure, while serious enough, was much lower than expected at one point during the pandemic. Most countries recovered or are recovering their manufacturing demand quite quickly, a point that bodes well for CNC machining businesses down the road.
Nevertheless, a $200 billion downturn is a serious blow. As factories shut and shops closed, demand from the manufacturing sector for CNC machining services took an expected tumble. However, while manufacturing demand fell, another sector saw a skyrocketing need for CNC services, providing an opportunity for CNC machining to offset losses in one sector with gains elsewhere.
From respirators to advanced laboratory equipment, the demand for high-end healthcare devices exploded. US states spent over $7 billion on a range of medical equipment and devices in spring 2020 alone, a number that was surely spent several times over throughout the course of the year.
Much of that equipment relies on high-end precision machining. Just in the area of vaccine development, the federal government sank over $10 billion into six vaccine candidates. That money was spent to support researchers and the labs in which they worked, equipping those labs with the latest high-end medical research equipment. That equipment, including devices such as centrifuges, might require tolerances as low as 0.0002” in order to achieve the desired accuracy. Creating equipment with such narrow tolerances requires advanced CNC machining centers.
Successful CNC shops have pivoted to meet that demand. Machining parts to produce advanced medical equipment doesn’t require additional equipment; it’s a simple matter of conforming to certain ISO standards and then acquiring the right contracts.
Machine shops create parts that are especially important for the pharma industry. Centrifuges, cooling towers, dryers, and inspection equipment are all produced with CNC machined parts. That equipment played a vital role in the eventual production of the various Covid-19 vaccines in the latter part of 2020.
Setting the stage for post-pandemic
Moving out of the pandemic, what’s the path forward for machining companies? Companies that have pivoted to provide parts and equipment for the medical and pharma industries are likely to see continued demand. At the same time, traditional manufacturing should see continued growth as countries come out of the pandemic.
This sets the stage for renewed growth in 2021 and beyond, as manufacturing levels slowly climb back to pre-pandemic levels. That growth is expected to take some time, especially as companies try to diversify and keep an eye on the next potential disaster.
Even the process of disruption-proofing the manufacturing sector offers potential opportunities for savvy machining companies. One of the primary focuses of a disruption-proof manufacturing sector is expected to be an emphasis on digital technologies. Those technologies include techniques such as digital twins, virtual blueprints that work to model how a part or tool will work in the real world.
The technology behind digital twins also integrates well with existing CNC technology. With a digital blueprint, CNC programmers can create G-code programs for new parts more intelligently and easily.
Digital blueprints continued improvement to existing CNC technologies, emerging tech such as 3D printers, and a host of other CNC-related improvements will result in continued opportunities for machining companies to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.
About the Author:
Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general.