Manufacturers face down recession at WESTEC Expo

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The WESTEC Expo closes today at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Thousands of manufacturers have passed through, looking for new machines or technology to help their production lines run more efficiently - and more profitably. KPCC's Brian Watt stopped by and found manufacturers facing down the recession.

Brian Watt: The floor of the WESTEC Expo looks like the floor of a giant factory warehouse – except with nice clean carpet. Milling machines, plasma cutters, automated lathes and the like. Imposing equipment that costs a lot of money.

Tony Selva is right in the middle of all of it. He owns Rancho Drivetrain Engineering, a small company in Temecula that builds off-road racing transmissions.

Tony Selva: What we're doing here is looking at equipment for a future project, 'cause we're looking to expand.
Watt: In this moment, you're looking to expand?
Selva: That's correct.
Watt: How many employees do you have now?
Selva: Right now, I only have three 'cause we've downsized and we're hoping to close this deal this deal to be able to expand. And we knew WESTEC – I haven't been here in about three years, and I wanted to come see what's new to be able to prepare myself to expand.

Watt: Last year, Selva's work slowed to a crawl. He had to lay off five employees – more than half his workforce. But if he closes a deal on the new project, he could hire them back – along with 45 more. So he's looking to buy new equipment for them to use.

Preeti Bedi of Ganesh Machinery in Chatsworth is offering a deal on her company's $119,000 steel-cutting machine. She's offering it at the WESTEC Expo for a mere $99,000. But Bedi says even a $20,000 discount might not convince an airplane parts manufacturer to sign on the dotted line.

Preeti Bedi: It's not that they don't have the money. They probably need the equipment. They're just afraid to purchase it right now because they don't know how it's gonna be six months from now.

Watt: In the corner of the expo floor, David Fisher mans a booth set up by the Southern California Manufacturers Group. Fisher's the boss at S&H Machine. His Burbank-based company makes fuel pump components and brakes for airplanes.

David Fisher: Right now, with the economy the way it is, you really don't want to buy a machine tool unless you have a project and there's a reason for buying it.

Whereas when times are really good, you may buy a, make a big investment just based on your gut feeling that you're gonna need it, and that if you put the machine in, the business will come.

Watt: The Society of Manufacturing Engineers has staged 46 annual WESTEC Expos. This year, the society's Web site tells any manufacturer who wants "to get through this tough economy" to attend. David Fisher agrees.

Fisher: That's there. I mean it's on the radio, it's on the TV every day. It's kinda hard to get away from. But you still gotta do the right thing, and you still gotta be looking towards the future, because if you just go to work every day and you don't think about the new solutions that are out there, then pretty soon, your competitors are gonna pass you by.

Watt: Fisher's been able to keep all 35 of his employees on the payroll. In fact, he's looking to hire maybe four more skilled machinists. Sure, it's a recession – but Mark Tomlinson with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers says businesses with the right products and workers with the right skills will do fine.

Mark Tomlinson: A lot of people in California who've lost their jobs – assembly line workers. Manufacturing is not just the assembly line worker. Manufacturing is the process. It starts with the creation of the part and ends with the supply chain.

Watt: Tomlinson says the assembly line worker who lost a job today has to get better, faster, and smarter – and move up that supply chain.