It looks as though the favorable economic indicators are finally outnumbering the unfavorable. According to Blue Chip Economic Indicators, a monthly newsletter that tracks the consensus of 53 business economists, forecasters now expect the economy to grow by 1.5 percent in 2002. Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, Jon E. Hilsenrath says this is particularly significant because only last month, these economists predicted 1 percent growth, and this marks the first time in 11 months they have increased their forecast. Hilsenrath also notes that Wachovia Securities (Charlotte, NC) just raised its 2002 GDP forecast from 0.3 percent to 1.3 percent, based primarily on the substantial inventory reductions at the end of 2001.

These and other forecasts bode well for manufacturing. Coincidentally, this issue, our annual Assembly Planbook, focuses on helping assembly professionals establish and manage the successful and profitable assembly projects that will contribute substantially to this growth.

But the larger and longer term strategic issue is that of recognizing future opportunities, and either developing or acquiring the manufacturing technology needed to exploit those opportunities profitably. One of the best places to look for early indicators about these long-range opportunities is in the technology forecasts from Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, OH).

Some of the major opportunities lie in the production, storage and consumption of energy. Dr. Steve Millett, manager of Battelle’s forecasts, says "We’re on the cusp of some major, fundamental changes in energy that are already under way." A panel of experts, led by Millett, picked 10 energy innovations that it predicts will have the most economic impact by 2010, including:

  • Hybrid vehicles. Gas prices may have come down, but 70 mpg will create a lot of converts. Hybrid vehicles combine small, efficient internal combustion engines with power from batteries for an extra boost during acceleration. The first generation of these vehicles is already here, and Tony Schaffhauser of Oak Ridge National Laboratory says "U.S. automakers have produced a next-generation of hybrid concept cars that will pave the way to 80 mpg five-passenger sedans."
  • Fuel cells. As fuel cells become smaller and cheaper, experts expect them to become increasingly popular for transportation and for portable power generation over the next decade. "These systems will provide power at competitive rates while drastically reducing the impact on the environment," says Don McConnell, associate lab director for energy science and technology at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
You can find a variety of forecasts in the archives on Battelle’s Web site, www.Battelle.org. As you peruse some from the mid-1990s, you’ll find several products that are already successful in the marketplace, including widespread use of global positioning systems, flat-panel wall-hung TV screens and digital high-definition TV. Most of the others are opportunities to be seized.