NOCOM, the NoCo Manufacturing Partnership's Manufacturing and Trades Show, returns September 23 this year after an 18-month hiatus due to COVID-19. Attendees will gather at The Ranch on the Larimer County Fairgrounds in Loveland, Colorado.
The in-person event arrives at a delicate time: The Delta variant is again giving companies and people pause about gathering.
Yet in a brief interview with four executives whose companies sponsor NOCOM, an uncertain business climate is a more immediate cause of anxiety. Gathering in person portends some normalcy at a time when manufacturers are experiencing anything but.
Here's my Q&A with:
Ashley Steinbach, director of strategic development, Snaptron
Chris James, owner and general manager, Metalex Thermal Specialties
Matt Hasseler, partner, BCS Fabrication
Larry Caschette, president, Metalcraft Industries
CompanyWeek: Can you put into words what it's been like the past 18 months?
Larry Caschette: Two words to start: unreliable and uncertain. Just the entire manufacturing ecosystem -- the entire economy, really, is rife with unreliability, from supply chain to labor, to even customers. There's a level of uncertainty that's incredibly hard to manage right now.
Ashley Steinbach: Yes, one word comes to mind: rollercoaster! At the beginning, it was, "How's this going to impact our business? How's it going to impact our customers?" -- and it's been some good, some bad, and some ugly, and I don't think we're finished yet.
Chris James: Yeah, I would say rollercoaster as well. We'll have tons of parts coming in that need to be heat-treated, for example, and a week later it's pretty slow. It's like everyone needs something all at once, then everyone drops off for a while. Very up and down.
Matt Hasseler: I have a different word that kind of echoes the same sentiment: anxiety! During that rollercoaster, we were fortunate enough to have work for the most part, but just the anxiety of: "What does the next week look like? What's going to shut down, what customer's not going to make it, what supplier's not going to make it?" Just a lot of anxiety and uncertainty at our shop.
CW: As a follow-up, I gotta ask: Where are we on the timeline here? Are we still in the middle of it? Are we at the beginning of a new part of it? Are we out of it? Where are we?
LC: What we keep saying around here is that 2020 was a breeze compared to 2021. I don't think we're anywhere near through it. I think we have another year or two before the logjams begin to break down.
AS: I kind of agree. To me, it seems like we've shifted. Early in 2020, it was like, "We don't have any orders, some of our customers have had to shut down -- layoffs, furloughs, whatever." And since then, we've actually seen an outpouring, where people are coming back to the office, and now we kind of have too much, where everyone's in a rush to get as many parts as they can because they were down and are trying to ramp back up and become stable again.
Also, everybody's been hit by supply shortages. So we're shifting now to see what we can do to make sure we have materials available. It's a different issue we're running into. So I would agree: I don't think we're through this by any stretch, and I think it's going to continue to change and evolve as we move forward in the next couple years.
CJ: I agree, I think we're right in the middle of it -- and there's still a way to go before we get out of it. With the materials and workforce shortages, it makes people who've been down for a while in a rush to get parts in, and with the supply jam, it's making it more difficult.
CW: So is the "new normal" uncertainty? Is there a new normal?
AS: We're still in the process of defining what that is. For Snaptron, we've had this mentality of we want everyone in the building all the time, we're reaching out to our customers as often as we can, but like a lot of places we've had to go to a remote workforce, so we're still shifting, and figuring out that path forward. Especially in marketing, we're seeing a shift for digital, so people have definitely jumped on the Amazon train, where everyone's online shopping, they're expecting packages to come to them.
We're also watching the buying experience change, and asking how that changes our sales team, trying to get in front of buyers sooner rather than later. And I don't know about you guys, but I feel like I'm getting 40 to 50 different prospecting emails every day clogging up my inbox. Traditional prospecting techniques aren't working.
We're just still trying to come up with new ideas to be more agile -- that's our new mantra right now!
LC: We've talked about the importance of "being flexible" for years now. But if you can't be flexible now, hour to hour -- in all honesty, if you're not flexible with the workforce, you're going to be in a lot of trouble.
There's no better time to be in the entry-level or underskilled positions in manufacturing. They're really calling the shots, and they have an opportunity to thrive and pursue great careers. But managing that is really driving hour-by-hour decisions.
CJ: For us, it comes down to a lot of rush-order parts right now, and we have to be able to process that and get those parts back to them when they need them, especially those companies that are trying to get started up again, and keep their customers.
It's important for us: if we can't get those rush-order parts done, they might lose customers. We're trying to keep up with them, and the ability to be flexible about when we proces parts, what time of the day we're processing to get them all done -- that's how it is right now for us.
MH: The biggest change for us -- and we're working with a lot of contractors and developers -- is that with material shortages and raw material increases, we're seeing a lot of pre-buy from the ownership, so we're getting released to buy all the material needs for a massive job up front, which has really changed the way we handle inventory and materials.
I agree with the others about the need to be flexible. For us, it's having the right staff that, when we get this giant wave of materials, we're preparing them to work nights and weekends to get caught up, anticipating the next lull. Then the next wave of gear is coming through our shop, and so on.
CW: What can be accomplished by bringing the community together at NOCOM?
LC: I have a little bit of past experience in other parts of the country and one of things we noticed about Colorado is that it was very siloed, disjointed -- a very protective manufacturing community. There wasn't a lot of collaboration, coordination.
As a region, really across all types of manufacturing, we can't allow that to continue. As people are starting to get back out, it's so important to come together, meet new people, have open discussions, and network. It's an important way we can spread the word about manufacturing to our youth, to our representatives in government, and to start to shift more of our economy to manufacturing.
AS: I agree and would take that one step further. We've talked a lot about workforce, and maybe how some of these entry-level positions are really calling the shots, but one of the things we've run up against -- and I don't know if it's a sign of the times -- but it's the bad perception around manufacturing. I think having events like this, and pulling people together to showcase some of the cool aspects of manufacturing , can really help to recruit top talent.
We make small parts that sometimes aren't the most glamorous things, but the industries we work with and some of the things we're accomplishing can help showcase the benefits and excitement and value of working in manufacturing facilities.
MH: I'd agree. Having NOCOM is a great way to reach out to create visibility among workforce, but the role of the event in creating a community for manufacturers is also a plus, whether it's opportunities to share work and help each other out, or just finding someone to commiserate with, someone who's having the same challenges as you are. Knowing there's other people in your world, who happen to be in your backyard, there's value and comfort in that.
CJ: Yes, very similar thoughts, and just having the networking part, knowing what's here and available is helpful, because I know a lot of people are sending things out-of-state to get things done. Bringing everyone together to get the word out about what we're capable of doing here, in Colorado, is really important.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about NOCOM or register to attend, click here.