More than 300 people representing organizations in the industrial fabrics industry responded to an online 2021 State of the Industry survey conducted January–March 2021 on behalf of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) about their businesses pre-pandemic (2019) and during the pandemic (2020), as well as their outlook for the future. Marine Fabricators Association (MFA) members were one of the most represented divisions among survey respondents.
Most respondents said they were able to maintain the prior year’s revenues and were riding out the pandemic as the economy begins to turn around. Most economic predictions are for a robust recovery in 2021, with real GDP expected to increase upwards of 6%, driven largely by stimulus spending. Some 62% of respondents expect their revenues to increase while only 5% expect a decrease (one-third are not sure).
Overall, respondents expect an average increase of 8.5% in annual revenues over the next two years. Organizations serving the hospitality markets anticipate the highest increase in revenues (10%). Those serving manufacturing and agriculture anticipate slightly lower-than-average revenues.
Finding workers remains top challenge
Despite the slowdown of the U.S. and world economies in 2020, businesses reported that their top challenge was finding skilled labor. More than half struggle to fill both full- and part-time workers. In addition, problems caused by the pandemic including employees who lacked childcare and employees needing to work from home were mentioned as top-of-mind challenges. Several specifically mentioned the lack of a trained workforce as a barrier to increased automation.
Another top challenge in 2020 was shipping delays from suppliers, which affected only 29% in 2019 but increased to 53% in 2020. Delays in deliveries to customers was also a top concern.
Continued warming to automation
Most companies have implemented some automation, but few (17%) have automated more than half of their operations. One-third plan to invest in automation in the next two years as part of their strategic growth plans. Automated cutting equipment followed by sewing capabilities are the equipment types and functions that are most under consideration. Among the third (38%) of companies that have not automated, many report that it is not a good fit for their primarily custom work. Others mention the lack of skilled labor to operate the equipment and the lack of perceived value derived from automation (e.g., the return on the investment isn’t enough to justify the cost of the automation equipment).