Most manufacturing industries, as you no doubt know, eventually develop a trade or industry association. These groups solicit membership from the industries they serve and, in return, provide a variety of services, including lobbying, training, conferences, trade shows, communications, marketing data, certifications and more. In the U.S. composites industry, we have the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE, Covina, Calif.) and the American Composites Manufacturers Assn. (ACMA, Arlington, Va.) and, at the periphery, the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE, Troy, Mich.).
One of the core services of a trade association is to measure and assess the health of the industry served by collecting data from supplier-members relating to quantity and value of goods sold into a given market. This is often done by measuring manufacturing machinery sales. For instance, if you want to gauge the health of the plastics processing industry in the U.S., one thing you might do is look at the annual sales of injection, extrusion and blowmolding machinery into the U.S. market. This is, in fact, done by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI, Washington, D.C.) and has for years provided reliable signals regarding the health of the market. SPI members, in turn, are given access to this data for strategic and operational planning purposes.
The composites industry, however, because of its myriad resin, fiber, tooling and processing system types, lacks the two or three ubiquitous machine types that could provide the bellweather data points needed to reliably gauge business activity. On top of this, there is a built-in reluctance among composites industry suppliers and manufacturers alike to share data of any kind — fiscal, mechanical or material — fueled by a desire to protect coveted intellectual property.
As a result, we are forced to look in the margins among end markets for signals and data regarding the health of the industry. That’s why we track commercial aircraft sales, military spending, luxury vehicle shipments, business jet sales and other metrics. From this data, we hope to glean some understanding of composites activity. This is fine, but there is no substitute for the horse’s mouth — folks like you who every day design and manufacture the composite structures on which this industry is built.
With this in mind, we are launching a new column in HPC this month called By the Numbers , authored by Steve Kline Jr. (see his first offering under "Editor's Picks" at top right). He’s the director of market intelligence at Gardner Business Media Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio), the company that publishes HPC. In By the Numbers, Kline will present each issue the results of monthly surveys of HPC readers. He’ll collect data on new orders, production, backlogs, employment and other factors. These data will be aggregated and analyzed to produce for you the Composites Business Index, designed to signal industry expansion or contraction, along with a sense of overall trends. I will be among the first to admit that the composites industry’s material and process flexibility is among it’s greatest assets, but I will also be among the first to admit that such diversity and fragmentation makes anyone who is trying to comprehend this industry’s ebbs and flows feel like a herder of cats. We hope By the Numbers will help impose some order in our disorderly economic sector and that you will follow along each month as we try to provide intelligent, reliable and actionable market data.