Officially, the numbers are sound, and they have been positive for much of the past year. The Institute for Supply Management reported the U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in October (latest data available) for the fifth straight month, and the overall domestic economy grew for the 53rd straight month, according to their Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) of economic activity. That widely regarded study is the benchmark for gauging U.S. economic activity because it surveys of 400 purchasing managers to track production levels, volumes of new orders, rates of supplier deliveries, inventories, and employment levels.

Each month, the purchasing managers’ responses — better, same, or worse than the previous month — are tabulated so that the percentage of respondents reporting better (or same, or worse) conditions is measured against the previous month’s comparable result. It measures growth (or recession) because it follows the trend of activity in 18 manufacturing industries. And so, broadly speaking, manufacturing is growing.

“The PMI registered 56.4%, an increase of 0.2% age point from September’s reading of 56.2%,” explained Bradley J. Holcomb, chairman of ISM’s Manufacturing Business Survey Committee. The PMI measures trends, so consecutive months of positive activity are particularly

Holcomb noted the PMI has increased progressively every month since June, and October’s reading brought out the peak of activity in 2013. New Orders and Production indexes have shown particular durability.

But the range of sources ensures that the PMI survey also locates where economic activity is happening, or not. So, while “growth” is indicated across 14 of the 18 industries surveyed for October (including among others Appliances & Components, Transportation Equipment, Machinery, and Fabricated Metal Products) two of the industries for which purchasing managers are indicating market “contraction” are close to home: Primary Metals and Miscellaneous Manufacturing. It happens that our annual survey discovered a similar uncertainty about the recent past and the immediate future.

Each year, during September and October, FM&T surveys metalcasters to measure the outlook of men and women working in North America’s foundries and diecasting plants. We seek to identify the problems they face in their businesses and the economy, to learn what plans they're making for the coming business cycle, and to understand better they're expectations are for the year ahead.

We surveyed readers by email over a period of six weeks. The results include responses from over 150 readers who represent a broad variety of foundries and diecasters: 32.9% name aluminum as the principal metal cast at their operations, and an equal percentage are casting iron; 22.9% are casting steel; 7.2% are casting brass or bronze alloys; and 3.6% are casting other nonferrous metals. Just 1.2% of respondents listed malleable iron castings as their principle product.

Similarly, our respondents represent metalcasting at various scales, including shops with less than 20 workers, 20.7% of respondents; and plants with over 250 workers, 12.4% of the field. Plants with 20 to 49 workers are 21.9% of the respondents; and an equal proportion of the field is represented by operations with 50 to 99 and 100 to 249 workers — 22.5% of respondents for each. What these readers tell us is the basis of our report.