Digital Editor, The Fabricator
If there’s been one constant for metal manufacturers and fabricators throughout the past four months of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been this: optimistic uncertainty.
Between shops deemed essential enough for production and shops forced to temporarily suspend operations, manufacturing experiences during the pandemic have run the gamut. But when looking toward the future – near and far – for what it means for the industry, there is a mostly shared ambivalence.
That’s according to feedback from more than 110 manufacturing and metal fabrication businesses. Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA) conducted a monthlong online survey between May 15 and June 15 to gauge how the pandemic is affecting the industry.
According to the survey, nearly half (47%) of the 113 respondents said their shop is unsure if manufacturing will rebound during the summer, 30% think the industry will revive quickly, while 23% don’t think it will bounce back in the next few months.
Prevalent uncertainty is reinforced by significantly flatlined production and revenue. The survey also shows that despite 87% of respondents saying that their operations were considered essential enough to stay open, 85% reported that their businesses haven’t seen any growth since COVID-19 began shutting down the economy. And 79% said that production has slowed or completely stopped.
In turn, the lack of production and revenue has had a domino effect on the ability for some shops, like Ferndale, Mich.-based Progressive Metal Manufacturing, to maintain a workforce. The Detroit-area metal parts manufacturer never shut down during the crisis, but it did suspend its worker attendance policy.
“Our major hiccup is getting our employees back to work,” Progressive Metal CFO Eric Borman said in an email. “We had high hopes of coming up to speed with no issues. Unfortunately, once we reinstated the policy, about 10% to 15% of our workforce just either never showed back up for work or had such bad attendance that we had to terminate them. With 20% unemployment, we hope to find those impossible positions.”
Chris Kuehl, FMA economic analyst and founder of Armada Corporate Intelligence, said the industry’s economic health depends on the manufacturing sector.
“If they're pointing toward the medical side, they're doing fine,” Kuehl said during an FMA webcast in May. “If they are pointing toward aerospace, they're doing miserably. If they're pointing toward automotive, they're hanging on for dear life and hoping that the consumer comes back and decides to start buying vehicles again.”
But, much like we’ve seen with the rest of the country, as summer has crept in, so has confidence regarding the coronavirus. Many states have phased in looser guidelines, allowing the economy to start finding its footing again. And that was reflected by manufacturers when taking a closer look at the survey. During the final half of May, 55% of respondents expressed they were unsure how the industry would rebound. Then, in the first half of June, that number dropped to 37%, with 39% saying that manufacturing will presumably bounce back this summer.
“Presumably” is the critical word, said Kuehl.
“We're making a lot of assumptions. We're assuming that business bounces back and we're assuming that consumers are ready for business to bounce back,” he said. “So, if you look at some of the predictions, some of the scenarios that are playing out, there are the fast recovery scenarios. There are the scenarios that are based on a more delayed response, maybe later into the summer, early fall. And then there are those that don't see anything really recovering for a significant period of time.”
The second half of June may have squelched some of that optimistic outlook. Anxiety over the unknown may be just as prevalent now as it was in March when the U.S. had its first confirmed cases. Positive COVID-19 test results have shown record spikes across several states in recent weeks, even forcing Texas and Florida to reverse reopening plans and some other states to revert to stricter shutdown orders.
Manufacturers and Fabricators Prepared to Pivot
Despite the uncertainty, metal manufacturers and fabricators have not only expressed willingness to reconsider reshoring supply chains and increase investment into more digital/automation tech, but they’ve proven to be resilient in the present circumstances. As evidenced by the FMA survey results, many shops put themselves in position to remain essential and open during the pandemic. But that means they also had to pivot on-the-fly as WHO, OSHA, and other regulatory health organizations were altering safety protocols.
For Topper Industries, a marine fabricator and manufacturer in Woodland, Wash., working on Department of Defense and federal transportation projects means that it was deemed essential from the very beginning. And with Washington being the state with both the first U.S. case and U.S. death, Topper and other Washington manufacturers were among the earliest to implement COVID-19 safety measures.
“It was a challenge for our shop floor team to get in the habit of being overly aware of their personal space, which makes it harder to look over drawings together, to work a problem out, or work in close proximity to fit a structure up,” Kim Rongey, Topper purchasing/logistics manager, said in an email. “But our team has gone above and beyond making sure we are compliant with the social distancing, PPE, hygiene practices, and sterilization of workspaces.”
Each morning Topper employees use a staggered process to make sure each worker gets a touch-free temperature check and answer questions regarding symptoms and exposure. Once they pass entry, they are required to wash their hands, put on necessary PPE, and social distance.
During the workday, a sterilization cleaning is scheduled every two hours for throughout the Topper facility. Any guests entering the building must also wear PPE and sign-in with contact information in the event contract tracing is needed. Company sales personnel have also stopped making in-person visits to customers.
“Other than making the adjustments required to implement on-site COVID-19 safety practices, our world has pretty much stayed the same and, for that, we are grateful,” Rongey added. “All in all, we are really proud of our team and their constant striving to practice all of the new safety requirements.”
In the meantime, metal manufacturers and fabricators will continue to pivot as COVID-19 cases fluctuate.