The Buffalo Niagara region's manufacturers are hoping for a more stable year.
Last year, some of them were forced to temporarily halt production during the pandemic. That happened to Buffalo Games, right when homebound families were flocking to jigsaw puzzles, and to home office furniture maker Bestar-Bush Industries, just as waves of people were thrust into working from home.
Automakers like General Motors and Ford temporarily suspended their manufacturing operations. Once they resumed production, they played catch-up, trying to restock depleted inventories on car dealers' lots.
Manufacturers faced plenty of challenges last year, and some were affected by fallout from industries they supply. Moog Inc., for instance, felt the sting of the airline industry's woes, as travel plummeted.
But locally, the manufacturing sector as a whole didn't suffer job losses or furloughs on the level of businesses in industries such as hospitality and tourism. As of November, the region's manufacturing job count was 53,000, up 2% from March, when the pandemic was just hitting the economy.
Now manufacturers are ready to see what 2021 has in store for them. They are sizing up where opportunities might emerge and, in some cases, trying to keep pace with demand.
The December edition of the Empire State Manufacturing Survey, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found manufacturers were optimistic that conditions would improve over the next six months.
"Demand for products is surging, requiring new and innovative production methods, and many manufacturers have stepped up to the plate," said Peter Coleman, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, in a message to members late last year.
Amid the upheaval in the economy were signs of growth, and manufacturers hope that will carry over into the new year. It's a sector that can help fuel the economy as some others remain stuck in the doldrums, uncertain about when a turnaround will come.
Sumitomo Rubber USA hung a banner promoting hiring on its Town of Tonawanda tire-making facility, which employs about 1,300 people. The plant was aiming to hire to fill about 40 more positions for production, electricians and skilled trades, and about 30 more positions for salaried IT, engineering, design and quality roles, said Russell Pustulka, senior director of human resources.
"With aggressive growth plans for the future, we see a solid base for manufacturing tires here in Tonawanda and for preserving these 1,300 to 1,400 jobs for years to come," Pustulka said.
Niagara Transformer saw ups and downs in activity last year. The Cheektowaga manufacturer has about 150 employees.
John Darby, Niagara Transformer's president, sees potential in markets like electrical infrastructure. Utilities are among the most aggressive in trying to penetrate the market for broad-based electric vehicle charging needs, he said.
"There needs to be a massive buildout to support the conversion from gas and diesel to electric and that is clearly the brightest spot in our spectrum of markets," Darby said.
Darby also sees hopeful signs in green energy generation like solar and wind power, and possibly a reversal of declining federal tax credits with President Joe Biden taking office.
A year ago, manufacturers couldn't have imagined what 2020 would mean for their operations. Now they are focused on what lies ahead and hoping for a year of consistent production.