SFIC Washington Forum: Plating and Politics


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More than 150 finishing industry professionals converged on our nation’s capitol in May for the second SFIC Washington Forum. Many of the assembled were first-time attendees at the event, which is designed to help finishers convert global environmental, economic, regulatory and technology challenges into opportunities for their companies.

The 2½-day event featured presentations, panel discussions and briefings on a wide range of technology, policy, regulatory and economic trends affecting the industry, tabletop exhibits from technology suppliers, and Capitol Hill meetings with key lawmakers and their aides.

Day 1 kicked off with a panel discussion of the repercussions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) drastic reduction in the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for hexavalent chromium. Panelists presented information on compliance and testing requirements, engineering controls, and the status of hex chrome alternatives, and answered attendees questions.

Questions were the order of the day for the next speaker as well. OSHA’s director of health standards laid out the agency’s position and responded to several queries about the new rules. She was followed by an attorney discussing legal issues surrounding the hex chrome issue.

Next up was nickel, with a speaker from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presenting findings of his agency’s nickel emissions study. This was followed by information on nickel developments in the European Union, which may be moving toward regulating some forms of the metal.

Day 1 concluded with a reception in the Rayburn Congressional Office building. Featured speaker was Sen., Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who covered topics ranging from environmental and worker safety regulations to off-shoring and currency exchange rates.

More regulations—specifically, RoHS, WEEE, ELV and REACH were the topic for morning presentations on Day 2 of the forum. Presentations included a look at global regulatory trends, an update on RoHS/ASTM testing of declarable substances and materials, and the challenges posed by WEEE/RoHS to the finishing industry.

Nanotechnology was the topic for two speakers. One presenter discussed what nano-tech is and what it means for finishers. The second covered emerging health and safety concerns revolving around production and use of nanotechnology products.

Next up, and other speaker from the EPA discussed the impact of her agency’s “plating and polishing” rule, which restricts air emissions of nickel and other metals and fielded questions from many attendees.

The Day’s keynote speaker was Eric Mittelstadt, CEO of the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM). Mittelstadt pointed out that manufacturing has led the productivity revolution in the United States. He outlined three periods of productivity growth: 1950-170, when improvements in labor drove productivity; 1970-1998, when technology drove growth; and 1998 to the present, when the need to respond to the transformation to a global economy were the main driver.

According to Mittlestadt, the number of manufacturing jobs and gross domestic product (GDP) are outmoded measures of U.S. manufacturing health. Rather, the main metric for measuring manufacturing productivity should be “national prosperity creation” in terms of increasing value-added out and developing new industries and jobs.

Globally competitive companies are those who do the most things the best, consistently, and it’s the same for nations, Mittlestadt said. Thus, continuous improvement is a key to competitiveness on both a company level and in government policies and programs for manufacturing. Because collaboration and connectivity are requirements in the new manufacturing economy, government programs must be aligned with needs of extended enterprises and companies must have easier access to an array of public programs, he concluded.

Day 2 concluded with a look at trade and economic trends in U.S.-China relations, an update on the industry’s litigation efforts against OSHA’s new chrome PEL rule, and a session on what influence the 2006 congressional elections might have on environmental and other policies that impact the finishing industry.

The event’s final day kicked off with a breakfast briefing titled “Energy Policy & U.S. Manufacturing.” The speaker was Paul Cicio, president of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA; www.ieca-us.org).

According to Cicio, natural gas prices in the United States have quadrupled since 1995. As a result, the U.S. has the highest natural gas prices in the world, and gas prices alone have resulted in the loss of 2 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. Yet many politicians refuse to address the need to increase supply, which would require exploration in off-shore areas and in federal lands that are currently off limits.

According to Cicio, more than 80% of federal land holdings are off limits for exploration, and estimates are that the land in moratorium contains  more than 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than 85 billion barrels of oil. Separate bills currently in the House and Senate could provide some relief, he said.

Cicio also noted that, by off-shoring work and jobs to China, we’re actually increasing global warming, mercury pollution, and other problems because China’s electric generating plants burn polluting soft coal.

The event wrapped up with Capitol Hill visits by attendees split into delegations according to their home state. Visitors to the Hill were able to voice their concerns and discuss pending legislation such as that outlined by Cicio with Congressional Representatives and their aides.