Manufacturing in Alabama and the Current Environment

This is part of a continuing series of commentaries by Alabama business and community leaders about the coronavirus crisis.

Maury Gaston, Chairman, Alabama Iron and Steel Council

What’s a business leader to do at a time such as this? What is a manufacturing business leader to do at a time such as this? Does it really matter whether a business is a service provider such as a restaurant or is a manufacturer? If so, does it matter what the company manufactures?

These are all highly relevant questions in today’s unique environment.

As chairman of the Alabama Iron and Steel Council, a council of Manufacture Alabama, I have an awareness of, and special interest in, the role of manufacturing in general and iron and steel manufacturing in particular.

Alabama has a strong manufacturing base in our state economy. More than 260,000 Alabamians are employed in direct manufacturing. This is 13 percent of our workforce — the fifth highest concentration among the 50 states. Many more are dependent on these manufacturing jobs as suppliers and vendors. These are jobs where people make things that others use to do their jobs and to make their lives better. These jobs create wealth through manufacturing. We manufacture cars and vans, missiles for national defense, paper goods including the newly popular bathroom tissue type, and countless other necessities to our lives and our national supply chain.

With respect to the Alabama Iron and Steel Council, we manufacture steel for the autos and vans manufactured here in Alabama and across the country. We manufacture steel slabs processed for innumerable applications downstream. We manufacture fire hydrants used to protect and preserve lives and properties from danger. We manufacture ductile iron pipe for water and wastewater that delivers clean and safe drinking water and provides sanitation for our wastewater systems. We manufacture steel coil used to make pilings on top of which we build our skyscrapers, beachfront condos, bridges and roadways, and we manufacture our nation’s largest diameter water pipes. We manufacture railroad wheels and equipment to keep our national rail system moving. We manufacture sheet steel for appliances and countless other end uses.

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As a pertinent fact today, more than 100 years ago when it was begun and since, the iron pipe industry in Alabama has saved many lives season after season by preventing water-borne disease. Clean water is the greatest advancement in public health in the history of mankind, and Alabama iron and steel manufacturing are the backbone of the American clean water industry.

Recent advances in supply chain technology have wrung out inefficiencies and delays in the process of sending a product or component to the next processor in the manufacturing supply line.

If any one of these incremental processes is interrupted, the entirety will come to a screeching halt. Our supply chain efficiency is a modern marvel and major contributor to our economic prosperity but has an unintended consequence in that it is fragile and easily disrupted and interrupted.

This is why it is so important for manufacturing to remain open and operating in these times. For this reason, manufacturers need to protect their employees from exposure. This can be accomplished by eliminating on-site visits from vendors, eliminating travel, and eliminating the on-campus presence of those employees who can accomplish their work from home.

As a member of Manufacture Alabama and other groups, I have participated in several calls recently concerning the current events. My sense is that companies are continuing to produce goods, transportation is still moving these products along, and everyone wants to keep working and manufacturing goods essential to our economic well-being and security. Supply chain disruption was the greatest threat in a call on Tuesday, March 24.

While we are all very concerned about those in the hotel, restaurant and airline industries, we believe the best thing is to keep as many manufacturers and businesses as possible open and working to provide the goods and products needed to keep our nation’s supply lines filled.

If Alabama’s iron and steel industries were to pause, ductile iron pipe for water and sewer system construction would delay the building of homes in subdivisions, not just here but all across the country. Steel used to produce automobiles and vans here in Alabama and in other states would shut down massive assembly plants and countless vendors to them. The lack of rebar used to strengthen concrete and a shortage of structural steel beams and girders would shut down commercial, residential, highway, road and bridge construction. A shortage of fire hydrants and their maintenance parts could place in jeopardy our lives, homes and properties.

Our supply chains must remain open and productive so that when the medical threat is over, our economy is not threatened.

The original question was, “What’s a business leader to do?”  First, he or she must communicate. A good friend says, “Negative thoughts fill a vacuum.”  Every parent who has not heard from their child by curfew knows what that means and what that feels like.

As business leaders in Alabama, let’s fill the communication space with our employees, our customers and the public so there is no room left for negative thoughts. Let’s keep them informed about plans, expectations, options, variables and seek their input, as well.

As another friend and mentor says, “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

Working together, we can get through this, keep our people working and bringing home paychecks, and come out stronger and smarter.

May God Bless America, Alabama and business in Alabama.

Maury Gaston is manager of marketing services for AMERICAN Ductile Iron Pipe and AMERICAN SpiralWeld Pipe in Birmingham. AMERICAN manufactures iron and steel pipe for water, fire hydrants and valves, high-frequency-welded steel pipe for energy, and castings for agricultural and mining applications. A Sylacauga native, Gaston is chairman of the Alabama Iron and Steel Council of Manufacture Alabama, a past chairman and current director of the state of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame, and an Auburn University mechanical engineering graduate.

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