From the Shop Floor — The Week in Manufacturing (10/7/2011)

There’s one New York-based market analyst I’ve heard of who uses the volume of cloth napkins used each month by restaurants in and around Manhattan as an economic barometer of the business climate, figuring that cloth napkins translate into expense account lunches and dinners. 

Others analysts track the financial performance of premium overnight shippers like FedEX, believing that the more America ships priority items, the healthier things must be. 

The problem is, even in the best of times we’ve become a more fit and a far more casual society, so some of the hottest eateries in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco now dress themselves down as paper-napkin dives — if, indeed, people are eating lunch at all, and not, say, at the gym or out power-walking. 

Meanwhile, the need to ship documents overnight has been reduced to a mere trickle by scanners, email and other forms of digital reproduction and transportation. 

The point being: some fairly recent and otherwise highly creative measuring sticks of economic health and well-being are now finding themselves slightly out-of-step to the world they’re attempting to measure; a world that continues to change quicker than they can track it. 

However, that said, there remains one age-old gauge of prosperity that, somehow, year after year, continues to cut to the heart of who we are as a country and economy.  And it was in the news this week.  

And because of that, it delights me to report that a number of major retail merchants have announced they anticipate an increase in the number of seasonal workers they’ll hire this holiday season, in advance of what they project (and clearly hope) will be a signficant spike in holiday-related business.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the good news front, Bloomberg’s Business Week reported this Tuesday that orders for capital goods in this country shot up in August by their highest percentage in three months.

And one more, while I’m at it.  Veteran investment analyst Prieur du Plessis, who calculates PMI using a GDP-weighted factor, reveals that U.S. manufactuing shone “amidst worldwide gloom” in September, particularly the Eurozone.

For those who believe pirating — be it stealing anything from high-end designer wear to software, music, movies or other digital forms of intellectual property — is not so much a crime as it is an amusing and largely harmless form of black-market quid pro quo, consider this item from the Los Angeles Daily News:  “More than 30,000 pairs of counterfei­t Lacoste sunglasses were seized from an incoming shipment from China…..valued at $48,000.  Had they been genuine Lacoste sunglasses­, they would have been valued at $4.5 million.”

And speaking of China, Huffington Post blogger Jeff Bocan had this to say this week about the hidden cost of “Made in China.”

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, four graduate students show why America’s next best hope for job growth remains not so much manufacturing but its kissing-cousin, innovation. 

Six years ago Iowa officials hired a firm to analyze the performance of two industries they considered essential to their state’s future:  information technology and manufacturing.  Those Iowans recently brought the same firm back to do a follow up study what those two industries had done since.  The results ended up being something of a mixed bag.

The Washington Post reported this week that Chinese officials contend that this country’s economic woes, including its massive trade imbalance with China, are not a product of the artificially low value of their currency, but some fundamentally flawed U.S. trade policies.

That response came on the heels of a vote this week in which the U.S. Senate cleared yet another regulatory hurdle on a bill that would penalize China steeply for keeping the value of its currency well below market value, and in the process keeping the prices of Chinese-produced goods well below those of their off-shore competition.

Speaking of China, CNN reported on the reaction many in the country — which remains a vital production hub of such Apple products as the iPad and iPod — had to the death of the remarkable and iconic Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs.

Elsewhere on the China front, the Pentagon issued a report this week with calls the Chinese stranglehold on rare earth minerals — which are essential in the manufacturing of computers, cell phones and other hi-tech devices and batteries — “dangerous.”

President Obama this week defended the grant his administration gave to conspicuously failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, calling solar power still “viable.”

It’s probably fitting that I close with an item on Jobs, who for all his design brilliance and marketing know-how, might have been one of  the most influential manufacturers of the past 50 years  And I guess it’s fitting that the total tonnage of tribute verbiage over the last 48 hours has been so staggering, it’s been all but impossible to sift through it .  Given that, I offer this nice snapshot of the Steve Jobs legacy by Yahoo! blogger Daniel Gross (who, despite his obvious appreciation for the man and his vision, still somehow managed to overlook the whole Pixar chapter of his story).  Enjoy.

And here’s to you, Mr. Jobs, and to the jobs you created. 

What can I say?  Job well done.

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