Confidence or uncertainty in 2019?

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Dave MacLellan, executive director of AILU, reports on the results of a business confidence survey taken by the organisations' members

As 2018 draws to a close, it is time for the annual business cycle of taking stock, counting the numbers and honing the forecasts for 2019. This year, AILU has circulated a business confidence survey to its member companies to take the pulse of the laser industry, with a focus on the UK in particular. Initial results from 45 AILU member companies show that the overall mood is refreshingly buoyant. The companies surveyed range from those with less than five employees to those with more than five hundred – the full spectrum of commercial businesses in the industry.

The consensus of opinion is overwhelmingly positive for the 12-month outlook of the UK laser industry, with 71 per cent of those surveyed saying that current conditions are good, 27 per cent describing them as middling and only 2 per cent describing them as bad. More than two thirds of respondents expect revenue to grow in the coming year and only one expected revenue to decrease next year.  

Employment and turnover

In the recently published strategy document, which was put together in consultation with many AILU members, one of the major issues identified was the lack of people with the right skill levels to fill the vacancies experienced in the laser industry – this being something in common around Europe. This can only be addressed by provision of training and a suitable pool of motivated and talented individuals to fill the vacancies identified. Respondents to the business confidence survey were expecting positive revenue growth over the next year (2 out of 3).

Results from AILU's recent business confidence survey.

Fifty one per cent of survey respondents expected to increase staffing, and no firms expected to have fewer employees in 2019. So it is evident that there is plenty of demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers, and unemployment is also very low, which might provide inflationary pressure on wages – something that would significantly impact the profit margins of many laser-based businesses.

Small companies make up a large percentage of the businesses surveyed – and of the overall population of 21st century businesses, especially in manufacturing. For a small firm, losing a key employee or needing to hire another to facilitate growth can be major headaches. 

Challenges for 2019

At the time of the survey, the future of the Prime Minister, her government and Brexit are all looking uncertain. Asked in the survey to name any one challenge facing their organisation, the majority who gave an answer highlighted ‘concerns over Brexit’, including a large number of manufacturers perturbed about the conditions for imports and exports – since the UK laser industry relies heavily on the import and export of components and systems, and free trade with the EU has been taken for granted. In addition to the challenges on trade and tariffs, tightening of immigration policies is expected to worsen the availability of suitable staff for laser-based businesses in the UK.

Growth is a challenge too, whether hampered by acquiring the right staff or finding new clients (especially in the subcontract laser processing businesses), about 20 per cent of respondents cited this as their significant challenge for the year. Of course, the Brexit concern adds an unprecedented level of uncertainty to growth forecasts and a no-deal Brexit could put a temporary spanner in the works of the normally free-flowing industrial supply chains, driving ‘just in time’ towards ‘far too late’. 

Quite a few of the subcontract laser-cutting businesses identified the challenge of becoming certified for the CE marking of structural steel or aluminium (EN 1090), which has been a legal requirement for those supplying the building trade with structural sheet metalwork since 2014 – this market being seen as quite lucrative, even if competitive.

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