Keep your eye on the ball

Readers, since it's the start of the US football season, I have chosen an appropriate title.

Readers, since it's the start of the US football season, I have chosen an appropriate title.

What did you expect from me – more bricks tossed at Standard & Poor's analysts? I've been waiting since February sweating out the NFL negotiations, and now I am feeling better since my supply of bricks is gone, the games are on, and all is well. Here's the thing, though, how do I disguise my passion for football in an editorial on industrial laser material processing? Ace illustrator Chris Hipp got the message, as evidenced by another of his perceptive caricatures; don't bother trying to explain – just do it.

In all sports that use balls, we are taught to always keep our eye on them. Maybe you can recall the receiver coach screaming, "Look the ball into your hands!" as you dropped an easily catchable first-down pass. I was a near-sighted tight end who quickly became a defensive end.

Paying attention is so ingrained that the title to my piece has become a metaphor for stay focused; don't forget the objective; concentrate; and a myriad of other business and lifestyle terms.

I'm not even going to guess where the manufacturing economy will be as you read this. The ball is up in the air on this one. The soothsayers have been preaching a double-dip recession since the last one ended, and perhaps they'll get it right, although I am not sure why they're enchanted with this negative prospect - maybe it's their 'ball'.

If you read my blogs (www.industrial-lasers.com), you'll know that I am an enthusiastic endorser of a strong manufacturing economy, here in the US or elsewhere. Not just because industrial lasers are key to dynamic, flexible manufacturing operations and that's my "ball", but because I firmly believe that automated processing is the cornerstone of a productive manufacturing economy and, like it or not, you financial types, a healthy manufacturing economy means a healthy national economy.

A few weeks ago, I began reading about a "trend" in Africa; it seems textile manufacturing in "high" labor rate South Africa was migrating to neighboring, low-labor rate countries. Where have I heard this before: China, Thailand, Vietnam? South Africa is a nation on the move; it has a growing auto industry and its other manufacturing infrastructures are getting stronger. Could they be the "China" of the next decade? A government official, commenting in the Wall Street Journal (8/8/11) on keeping wages low in the wage competition situation, said, "We'll never win; just like nobody else will ever win." He may have been thinking about what is happening in textile manufacturing in Southeast Asia.

Here's one you can file away for a "he told you so" years from now; I believe that Africa will become a hot industrial laser market within 25 years. It will take another generation of trained, skilled and high wage manufacturing employees needed to maintain all those automated laser processing systems.

And here's the kicker – unless we keep our eyes on the ball here in the US, the next competitor beating us with better priced laser processed goods will be Africa. So as we walk through our retailers, the goods on the shelves will read "Made in Africa," not China or India.

If that's the case, the ball I will be following then will be round not oblong.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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