As 2020 disappears in the rearview mirror many of us are wondering what 2021 has in store. Well we don’t have a crystal ball or the gift of second sight but it’s fun to speculate. It’s also important for our business that we do it. By anticipating what customers will need we’ll do a better job of keeping them satisfied. Likewise, observing trends in manufacturing, technological and otherwise will help us position ourselves for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

To put this another way, you might say we’ve been keeping an ear to the ground and an eye on the horizon. Here’s what we see coming, (besides a visit to a chiropractor.)

Business Trends in 2021

The first half of 2020 was bad for everyone, but many industries have bounced back. Automotive is a good example with car sales expected to approach 2019 levels. Other sectors faring rather well are eCommerce, manufacturing automation and renewable energy.

One group of manufacturers we pay close attention to, because we fabricate parts and accessories for them, are those who build RVs. It seems more of us will be taking to the roads for our vacations in 2021 because the RV Industry Association anticipates growth of 19.5% this year!

Of course, it’s not good news everywhere. Aviation is struggling as people drive rather than fly, and commercial real estate is in the doldrums. That’s what happens when companies no longer need office space.

Despite the down sectors though, for many businesses in fabrication and metalworking 2021 has the makings of a good year. The biggest challenge might be handling the influx of work.

Skills Shortage Persist

Yes, we were surprised by this too. For all the layoffs and furloughs we saw in 2020 a broad group of manufacturing industry associations see the same problem: not enough skilled people to keep factories churning out goods..

The National Association of Manufacturers, (NAM) the Association for Manufacturing Technology, (AMT) and the Association for Advancing Automation, (A3) all say the same thing: manufacturers across the country are struggling to hire and retain skilled workers.

The American Welding Society, (AWS) goes further. They’re predicting a shortage of 375,000 skilled welders by 2023. That’s definitely going to squeeze output from metal fabricators unless we can find some solutions.

The biggest reason given for this problem is that not enough young people have been going into professions like welding. That’s led to an aging workforce, some of whom are deciding to retire, and perhaps travel the country in a new RV!

So here’s another manufacturing trend prediction for 2021: more young people exploring welding careers at their local Community Colleges.

(By the way, if you’re curious about our sources for all the above, it comes from, “Seize The New Day” in the January 2021 issue of Fabricating & Metalworking magazine.)

More Reshoring

Can you have too much of a good thing? In addition to rising domestic demand for manufactured goods, organizations like NAM and the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) forecast that the reshoring trend will continue.

We addressed this back in December 2020, (“Will the Reshoring Trend Continue?”) so there’s no need to repeat it here. Let’s just say though, it seems domestic companies in metalworking and fabrication can expect to see more work, and we have some pretty good forecasting skills!

Supply Chain Re-Evaluation

This is another consistent theme emerging from the various industry groups. All the disruption we went through in 2020, on top of “Trade Wars” and tariff issues, has many businesses looking at where they’re buying from.

This ties in with our reshoring observation above, but it goes a bit further. According to those monitoring this trend, there’s growing interest in buying local. We’ve all heard of this in regards to Farmers Markets and book stores, but apparently manufacturers are thinking the same way. They want the flexibility that manufacturing parts nearby brings. Our location in Indiana seems like an ideal location from which to serve the Midwest and further afield!

Is Technology the Answer?

At this point let’s summarize what we’ve learned and see if we can work out what it means for metal fabrication specialists like us.

The conclusions seem to be:

  • Expect to be busier in 2021
  • Expect more challenges due to highly experienced “Boomers” leaving the workforce
  • Expect customers to expect short lead times and increased flexibility.

So what are we to do? The answer seems to be, put technology to work. On this point the 2021 forecasts are very interesting.

The AMT predicts that manufacturers will be investing in more automation. That would mean a lot more fabrication work – bases, frames and so on. Robotic welding may have to be part of this.

On the subject of robots, the AIA says manufacturers will increase their use of cobots. That’s a trend we’ve been following for a while now. Read, “Why a Collaborative Robot May Be Your Next Manufacturing ‘Hire’” for more details.

Of particular interest to fabricators, The Fabricator magazine says sales of fiber lasers are booming. These are taking over from the CO2 lasers for cutting shapes from sheet and section, and are being used for jobs like welding and cladding too. Fiber lasers have useful beam properties, are relatively small and not too expensive to run.

And last on this list, additive manufacturing is going to help reduce lead times and increase flexibility. This is because it’s moved beyond being a tool for making prototypes, and is now a tool for making tools. Grippers, guides and other components of jigs and fixtures can all be 3D printed in less time than it takes to get parts machined conventionally.

Good Times Ahead

Whether you call it crystal ball-gazing or reading the tea leaves, predicting the future is always risky. Back in 2019 who would have anticipated the events we saw in 2020? But we feel pretty good about these forecasts for 2021. For those of us in manufacturing and metal fabrication the omens are good.