By Mark Colman
Looking back, 2023 was a good year for the boiler industry. Sales for new boiler equipment and repair and maintenance projects were strong throughout 2023.
Many of the projects that were slowed or halted during COVID came back to life in late 2022 and 2023. Of course, the inflationary pressures that all businesses faced did make it a challenging year. So, our industry was forced to work hard to manage the risk of rising prices. For the companies that were successful in managing that risk, it was a very good year.
The other big challenge in 2023 was finding and retaining workers. Many companies in our industry, along with ABMA, are actively working with trade schools and universities to promote the great career opportunities that exist in this boiler industry. Overall, I feel we are doing really well at developing the work force needed to continue to drive our industry forward.
With regards to the association, itself, 2023 was a phenomenal year. We saw record growth in new members. And as part of our strategic objective to make ABMA the home for the entire boiler supply chain, we opened our membership to sales representative companies, as well. These companies work with and represent the active members of ABMA. We have had very strong interest from these sales representatives, many of whom joined ABMA as members in 2023.
Focused on that supply chain, preparations are now well under way for Boiler 2024, ABMA’s Boiler Technology Conference & Expo, which is shaping up to be another amazing event with around 100 exhibitors. Boiler 2024 will be held at the Gaylord Rockies in Denver, Colorado, which is a beautiful property. The event will be a fun and educational experience for all who attend.
In addition to preparing for Denver, the ABMA staff has been working hard at executing the organization’s strategic objectives and bringing real value to the membership. The 2023 Annual Meeting in San Diego was a wonderful event, although a little soggy, and the 2023 Summer Meeting in British Columbia was truly special, set in a very beautiful part of our world. ABMA wrapped up 2023 in a sound financial position and is well situated to support and promote the boiler industry for another 100-plus years.
What ABMA expects to see in 2024
This year appears to be starting out with the same strong demand that we saw in 2023. We expect that business will continue to be driven by the demand for improved boiler efficiencies and legislative initiatives like the Inflation Reduction Act. As our customers continue to figure out their path to decarbonization, the boiler industry will be there to support them with solutions that fit their needs.
Of course, there has been a lot of talk over the last year about a possible economic recession but at this point, it is looking less and less likely that one will occur. The great news is that those inflationary pressures are easing and there now seems to be a glimmer of hope that the labor markets are improving. Also, there are positive signals that interest rates could begin to fall in 2024. Taken together, these improvements should help to make 2024 another good year.
However, the wild card for 2024 will be the election. And political rhetoric is in full swing. Of course, if I could predict what was going to happen in this election, I would not be in the boiler business. But experience has shown that there is often a mild slowdown in the boiler industry around election time. Typically, that slowdown is brief, and business picks up again shortly after the election.
So we will just have to wait and see what the 2024 election brings for the boiler industry. Either way I feel there are strong market drivers that will continue to push up demand for boilers no matter who is in the White House.
The road ahead for ABMA
For the association, we expect that 2024 is going to be a busy and exciting year. It kicks off with our annual meeting in Austin, Texas, in the first week of February. Once again, this event will be a fun time with great opportunities to network and learn about industry trends. And with the increase in our membership, this annual meeting is sure to be one of our largest meetings to date.
As mentioned earlier, Boiler 2024 takes place in early May. It will be the largest boiler-focused conference and expo in the United States this year. Once again, this special event promises to be a great expo and educational opportunity for anyone who owns, operates, or is in the market to purchase, a steam boiler.
In addition to the Annual Meeting and Boiler 2024, ABMA staff are also working hard on advancing the boiler industry through these objectives:
- Making ABMA the home for the entire boiler supply chain;
- Investing in workforce development initiatives to ensure this industry thrives;
- Ensuring that everyone is aware of the integral part that boilers play in our society and the boiler industry’s active role in environmental sustainability.
Deciphering decarbonization, big data
Technological advances, requirements for improved efficiencies, and lower emissions mandates for the boilers we manufacture continue to drive our industry. Time and again over the years, the boiler industry has risen to the occasion and met these requirements for improved efficiency and emissions. The path to decarbonization now will be no different.
Toward that end, ABMA member companies are ready to lead the way and to help our customers determine what their path to decarbonization looks like. I feel that that path will vary by region and by individual company. So, this will not be a one-size-fits-all process.
Various regions around the world will have access to different types of renewables and green fuels. Because of this, the solutions will vary based on what resources are available locally. Some places will have ample access to hydrogen and others will have access to low-cost electricity through wind, solar, or hydroelectric power. Other regions will have geological formations that allow for easy sequestration of captured carbon. These regional variations and the customer’s desires will be what dictates their path to decarbonization.
In addition to the push for decarbonization, the industry is also seeing the impact of big data and more automation of systems. This automation is making it easier for our customers to operate their steam plants with fewer personnel, allowing those operators to focus more on preventative maintenance to ensure high run-time efficiencies.
With the onset of artificial intelligence (A.I.) now, it is yet unclear the exact impact this transformative technology will have on the boiler industry. It will be interesting to see how it will help to improve our industry.
Developing that next generation
ABMA is working to provide members with tools to develop relationships with educational institutions and associations to promote the sustainable and diverse career pathways within the boiler industry. The association is also developing resources and case studies to support member companies engaging with local institutions. From my perspective, this is a marketing campaign that individual companies have to execute in order for the talent that is out there to learn about all the great reasons there are to come to work for you.
At my company, Rentech, we work closely with our local high school and technical colleges. We support the teachers and faculty in these institutions and assist them with materials, supplies, and curriculum. We sit on advisory councils for these institutions and have meaningful discussions with the educators on what we need as the basic skill sets for students entering the workforce. We also promote internships and work-shadowing programs for skilled labor students.
For younger students, we also offer factory tours and mentoring lectures. Many of these younger students do not realize that there are local, good-paying career opportunities in manufacturing. So, companies must engage with local schools. Without that involvement in the process, the educators also have no idea what type of training is needed to support their local manufacturers.
So, everyone in the industry working together to get the word out about the opportunities in our industry is really the way I feel we will solve the current issues around hiring, training, and retaining workers. This approach has worked well at Rentech and I am confident it will work for others, as well.
In closing, I think the future for the boiler industry looks bright.
The need for steam is not going away anytime soon. Granted, we may see different fuels being fired in our boilers and we may see new flue gas treatment processes on the back end of the boiler systems, but the need and demand for steam will continue to exist. The boiler industry has been around for a long time and it has seen a lot of changes during that time. But as we have always done in the past, this industry and ABMA will rise to the challenge and innovate and adapt to the needs of our both our customers and society.