Fenton — Robert Bloomfield, director of manufacturing for Atlas Technologies stood atop a metal platform, watching the controls for the large boring machine, occasionally referring to drawings behind him.
The platform and machine moves very slowly along an 11,000-pound piece of steel. He joked that this is why it’s called a “boring” machine.
While on the international level a trade war between the U.S. and countries like China and Turkey might be heating up, things are calmer for businesses in the tri-county area.
The tariffs were spearheaded by President Donald Trump, with developments along the way. The most high profile items are a 25-percent tariff on imported steel from countries like China.
The tri-county area is home to several industrial businesses that use steel for their production.
Bill Rogner is a consultant for Atlas Technologies. His company provides automated machinery for high volume sheet metal manufacturers, mostly for the auto and appliance industries. They buy steel for individual projects, but said that their suppliers buy steel from both the U.S. and abroad. He said tariffs or not, the price of steel has been volatile, with higher prices before the tariffs kicked in.
He said they’re indirectly impacted by tariffs. “Our customers buy a lot more steel, and they are affected,” he said. When customers are affected, it hurts their bottom line, and they may be less likely to invest in capital expenditures like this factory equipment they make.
To compensate, they try new markets like aerospace, rail and trucking.
“In a perfect world I would not support a tariff, in an imperfect world which this is, there are occasions when I can support tariffs,” Rogner said. “International trade in not an even playing field.”
Chris Douglas is an associate professor of economics for the University of Michigan-Flint.
He said the goal of the tariffs is to make certain international players, like China, opt for a trade deal more equitable for the U.S., and work to protect U.S. intellectual property.
But are the tariffs working? Douglas said it’s too early to tell. He said most economists say tariffs don’t work, and more jobs are lost than gained.
Still, Douglas said that this is a non-traditional use of tariffs. “Perhaps there’s a short-term cost in exchange for a long-term benefit,” he said. If China accepts a more favorable trade deal, and better intellectual property protection, the tariffs could be a success.
Of course, China can retaliate with its own tariffs on U.S. goods.
Paula Swigert is supply chain manager for KUKA Assembly & Test on Fenway Drive in Fenton. They build automation equipment for the auto industry.
She said she’s concerned for the future because KUKA does a fair amount of both importing and exporting.
They don’t buy as much raw material like steel, but they do buy components from abroad which are set to have tariffs applied. She’s planning on about a 20-percent tariff, depending on the item, which could hurt profit margins. “Right now it’s a little unsettling not knowing what will happen in the future,” she said.
Swigert said she has mixed feelings on tariffs, but echoed Rogner’s views that the playing field needs to be fair.
Mike Parker, CEO of Epic Machines, said they’ve also been impacted very little because they buy American steel — approximately $500,000 worth each year. His company has accounts with the likes of GM, John Deere and Caterpillar. “Personally I’m all for the tariffs,” he said.
Parker is able to secure his own steel mill runs to buy directly from U.S. steel manufacturers. “I do my best to purchase U.S.,” he said. “To me it’s not all about the money,” he said. He likes providing jobs. “If it goes overseas I can’t do that,” Parker said.