Where Do We Stand?

“A healthy domestic machine tool industry is vital to national security and prosperity.”

A summary of the annual World Machine Tool Output & Consumption Survey appears in the April 2011 issue of MODERN MACHINE SHOP. No piece of research from MMS publisher Gardner Publications is cited more frequently than this one, mainly because it compiles reliable figures about the global machine tool industry in a historical context. Joe Jablonowski’s analysis of the results is insightful, too.

Joe, editor and publisher of the Metalworking Insider’s Report, has years of involvement with conducting this survey and presenting the findings. His comments about the remarkable rise of China as both a producer and a consumer of machines grab attention. From a global perspective, it would be hard to miss the significance of this development.

However, the most important figures for U.S. readers are those related to the consumption of machine tools in this country. Broadly speaking, “machine tool consumption” is a good indicator of a nation’s willingness to invest in manufacturing technology. It signals whether manufacturing is growing or declining. As Joe notes, U.S. consumption in 2010 was down overall from 2009 but has picked up sharply since IMTS 2010. If the United States moves up in the ranks as a consumer in 2011 (we were in sixth place for 2010), that would indeed mark resurgence of U.S. manufacturing. This figure, then, is the one to watch.

Nevertheless, I tend to be a bit preoccupied with machine tool production figures. A ranking of countries according to the dollar value of machine tool production can be found at gardnerweb.com/consump/survey.html. In 2010, the United States slipped to eighth place, continuing a slide in ranking that began more than a decade ago.

One industry observer who worries about this decline is Albert B. Albrecht, author of the book, The American Machine Tool Industry—Its History, Growth & Decline. I became friends with Al a few years ago, when his book was first published. He’s been associated with machine tool manufacturing for almost 60 years. A major theme of his book, now in its second edition, is that a healthy domestic machine tool industry is vital to national security and prosperity. This view is not held as widely as it once was.

Al and I spoke about the industry over lunch recently, and he shared an article he had written about the prospects of the United States returning to its place as a leading world producer of machine tools. The article outlines the steps he thinks are necessary for the United States to increase its position in world markets. Although I don’t entirely share his concern about America’s dependence on manufacturing technology from foreign countries, I agree with this important comment: “Other nations appear to have a better understanding of the value of manufacturing and the importance of the machine tool industry that supports it.”

For more info about Al’s book and a link to the text of his new article, click here.