Wild ride

Jan. 15, 2010
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, asks are you ready to end this recession.

It’s January in Chicago, when temperatures plunge, snow falls and often we find ourselves starting the car and letting it idle to warm up while we brush and scrape winter’s wonders off the glass and lights. I was doing that with my 1992 Civic (253,000 miles) the other day when I noticed a pretty solid knock coming from the cold engine. It was the kind of knock that goes straight to the heart of anyone who’s had the experience of looking through the side of an engine block at a broken connecting rod (on three separate occasions).

The knock made a fine soundtrack as I brushed the snow off (or into?) the gaping holes that had once been delicate filigrees of rust around the rear wheel openings. The corrosion isn’t structural, but it’s working its way around the repairs I made a few years ago to the rear bumper cover attachment points.

And ah, the aroma from the tailpipe. The car makes good power and gets great mileage, but the all-original engine now uses a quart of 5W-30 every 2,500 miles. That’s not enough to explain the strange odors it’s taken to emitting through the original cat with the original oxygen sensor. It’s due for an emissions test this September; maybe I’ll learn something.

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Ten million cars were sold, but 14 million were scrapped in the United States in 2009 (700,000 under cash-for-clunkers). In China, 8 million cars were sold, and analysts expect the Chinese to buy 14 million in 2012. Draw your own conclusions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see people standing in line to pay list-price-plus for an ordinary new car in the United States before the end of 2010.

Federally-funded state programs of incentives for purchases of energy-efficient appliances, water heaters and HVAC equipment will be leapt upon like cash-for-clunkers once people realize they’re in effect only while the funding lasts.

The frozen landscape for housing is thawing, energy prices are going back up, carbon caps are coming, the Dow’s rising and unemployment appears to be bottoming out. Opportunities already abound for businesses that thrive when people are watching pennies (food processing, repairs, energy), and soon your customers and your employees will again be able to choose where to spend their time and money.

Are you ready for them? Can you take advantage of the lessons learned and efficiencies gained during these lean times for smoothly turning up production at new levels of quality, efficiency and reliability? Or are you looking at a plant full of patched-up equipment, attended by a skeleton crew of disgruntled employees?

The Conference Board says job satisfaction is the lowest it’s been since it started tracking it in 1987. Economic indicators are rising, but at most companies and for most individuals, spending restraint is still strong. You laid off your least valuable people, are you prepared to hang onto your best? Or, will you soon be starting those long, costly searches for qualified replacements while you lose new business to your competitors?

By the time I came back to the front of my car to finish cleaning the wipers, the knock had subsided. Maybe it was just the cam rattling in the cold cylinder head, or some piston slap from the time my kid caught second instead of fourth on a downshift at 60 mph. Maybe the car will last another year, maybe not. Does anyone make duct tape in “Torino Red?”

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