Monday, April 22, 2013

Let’s grow LME

Could a "mini-Munich" be held in the US?

For several years, following the expansion of industrial laser system exhibits at the Munich laser show, World of Photonics, exhibitors and visitors from the US began to ask if a "mini Munich" could be held in their own country. Several European organizations expressed interest in the idea, and some aligned with US organizations to test the waters for such a venture. ILS was a participant in some of these activities.

The focus of these activities has been the question: could a free-standing laser trade show, perhaps supported by a technical conference, draw sufficient numbers of exhibitors and attendees generate the revenues needed to cover the expense of producing such a venture? Munich's World of Photonics is a massive effort with technical organizations coordinating with Messe Munich to make this biennial event a destination. Housed within the Messe Munich halls are exhibits that cover all aspects of laser technology, not just industrial material processing. At Munich, two Production halls provide space for many dozens of exhibitors showing their products and these halls are a beehive of activity for the four days of the show. At Munich, over 20,000 attendees fill the hall aisles. Walk-ins at most German trade shows are common so bustling attendance is the norm. Could that be duplicated in the US?

Here in the US, two major international laser trade shows, Photonics West and CLEO, draw hundreds of exhibitors in support of large technical conferences. Neither of these events are strictly an industrial laser show. Fabtech and IMTS are trade shows for industrial products and each has an industrial laser content, but not at the level of a Munich.

Stepping into this breech two years ago was the Laser Institute of America, which put together an event called, rather curiously, Lasers for Manufacturing Event (LME). Organized almost overnight in 2011 and situated in a convention center in Schaumburg, IL, LME got off to a modest start with technical sessions supported by an exhibition of several dozen industrial laser suppliers. Encouraged by this, the LIA moved forward to produce the second LME last year, along the same lines as the first, with the intent to size-up the exhibitor level to attract a larger walk-in attendance. This effort produced additional exhibitors, and the show attendance experienced a modest increase.

Thus, the Laser Institute of America (LIA)  has cranked-up its effort to make this year’s LME (September 11 to 12) a major destination for those in North America interested in industrial laser material processing. Here’s the rub, however. Unless new exhibitors support the show to make it a "mini Munich" it will not attract the attendance numbers needed to keep the event growing. Simply, you have to invest to make this show a "must see".

To all those who asked for an industrial-laser-only event, here it is. Support it. To those who are reticent to exhibit at the same venue as their competitors, I say, wake up, that's what makes Munich so attractive, and you like that. Trade shows like Fabtech and IMTS have pavilions where competitors exhibit shoulder to shoulder, amiably and profitably.

Here's a clarion call to all industrial laser systems suppliers in North America: if you want a "mini Munich," join with your peers and make LME that event.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Looked at manufacturing lately?

Lately, the media has been writing more than usual about U.S. manufacturing. It seems the word is out that manufacturing is:  A – on Washington’s hot list, B – poised to lead the country out of the doldrums, C – reaping the benefits of lean practices, D – benefiting from productivity leadership, E – a good place to work, and F – all of the above.

All of a sudden, manufacturing engineers are in the spotlight, and universities are touting curriculum changes that are attracting new students to what was once a “dirt-under-the-fingernails” type of occupation. Recognition of the need for these engineers has occurred in government, academia, and industry organizations; they are a little late, one could argue, but at least there is awareness at all levels, a necessary and positive action that gets media attention.

Many decades ago, a group from the laser industry was invited by the U.S. Department of Commerce to present state-of-the -technology and to suggest ways in which that department could assist in growing what was then a nascent industry. This was long before the Fraunhofer model of government/academic/industry cooperative projects was even conceived. This laser industry group did not appear with hands out for federal funding; they simply thought that government recognition of this industry at the highest level might be the catalyst for faster growth. No funds were sought, only the suggestion that a statement by the president that this technology was important to the U.S. and that all government departments should cooperate to the extent allowed to smooth the path for this industry to grow.

The statement didn’t happen. It seems that the party in power was more influenced by corporate loathing for government involvement (with the attendant bureaucratic regimens), than to look to Washington for assistance. Several decades later, the current president did pretty much what the naïve laser group had proposed. Time will tell if they had the right idea.

In the meantime, manufacturing is on a roll in the U.S., and industrial lasers are riding with it.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Industrial laser market meets forecast

As this is being written, I am waiting out the end of a particularly nasty, late winter northeaster that has dumped a foot of heavy, wet snow on the region. It's sort of Mother Nature's last slap at us before the start of Spring next week. I won't bore you with details, but the Winter of 2012/2013 will be close to the top in snowfall records.

Speaking of records, the last of the 4QCY12 reports are in, and reviewing the results for industrial laser industry leaders, such as Coherent, IPG Photonics and Rofin, I do not see any compelling reason to make a significant change in the ILS 2012 Annual Report already published and delivered at the recent Marketplace for Lasers & Photonics seminar in San Francisco. I'll possibly tweak the detail numbers, such as those for lasers used for specific applications, but the changes will be minimal and will not upset the trend lines.

The early assessments for the global manufacturing economy are rolling in and have not changed from those I used to make the ILS 2013 forecast. The mix of good/bad news is about what analysts expected, and I anticipate that my numbers might inch up a bit, but remain in the mid-single digit area. I'll have a better idea come my mid-year Market Report, which again this year will be in the form of an ILS Webcast scheduled for June.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Photonics West features ultra-fast and fiber lasers

I’ve finally recovered from a rousing Photonics West (with a record attendance of more than 20,700 visitors) that, as usual for this early-in-the-year tradeshow, was optimistic and upbeat. Although their ranks are growing, industrial laser exhibitors at PW are still in the minority. For me, that’s great because I can cover this segment without leaving the show feeling like I had missed something important. Having said that, I will confess that I spent relatively little time in the North Hall compared to the South Hall where most of the industrial laser exhibitors were. At PW, there are two main halls containing over 1235 exhibitors, which were jam-packed with exhibits, many on table-tops only, giving the impression of a near-East bazaar. As a consequence, I may have missed some international companies that had products related to industrial lasers. Fortuitously, I had colleagues at the show and they will tip me off to any hidden gems I may have missed.

Centered in the South Hall was a powerhouse display of advanced industrial laser technology at the exhibits of IPG, Coherent, Trumpf, Jenoptik, and Newport. Setting aside the lure of fiber lasers, it was gratifying to see large and seemingly enthusiastic exhibit visitors checking out new ultra-fast pulse lasers that are being introduced into the market for industrial laser material processing. Many of these have appeared on the ILS Webpage and in the monthly Product Watch e-Newsletters.

Referring back to my opening paragraph, I use PW exhibit visits to the industrial laser product suppliers as a touchstone for what business prospects may look like in the first half of 2013. My overall impression reinforces what I presented in my Annual Market Review: very modest growth in the first half, followed by the start of a pickup in the 3Q and an active 4Q that will take suppliers into 2014 with a healthy backlog.

At the show, I asked company management if they were comfortable with a slower growth year. Their answer was that, having survived the Great Recession by leaning the companies down and investing in new products - which led the industry out of the slump and enabled them to roar back to pre-recession revenue and profit levels one year earlier than predicted - they intend to hold staffing and major investment levels. Company management essentially believed they were capable of meeting market demand in 2013 before they staff up for 2014. There are exceptions, such as IPG Photonics riding a boom in fiber laser sales, but for the most part, it’s a wait-and-see attitude for 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Laser Additive Manufacturing takes center stage

Well, the Super Bowl is set, and fans in New England and the Southeast are bemoaning a dropped pass here and a missed tackle there, as the Brothers Bowl promises an extra reason to watch San Francisco take on Baltimore in New Orleans. I’ll confess to being a 49ers fan since I was a lad, recalling grainy film on black and white television of YA Title, then a 49er, valiantly leading his team through the mud of Kezar Stadium. There was something exotic about the 49ers, playing on the West Coast that attracted an East Coast fan more attuned to Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns, another early favorite. A few years later, I had the occasion to visit Kezar, on another rainy day, and I was so deflated by the dowdy, gray stadium that looked so like the old B & W images.

Now there’s a new era, and the 49ers are about to leave windy old Candlestick Park for new digs abuilding in Santa Clara, just down the 101. They are being led by one of a new generation of quarterbacks, one of at least three "option" quarterbacks who are revolutionizing the old NFL passing game. They are a feisty group: one looking like a lean tattooed hippy, another like a short fireplug, and the third resembling a dread-locked Alabama running back. The game they play is exciting and refreshing. In a league that is known for copycatting, it won't be long before this style is the norm.

All this brings to mind a more quiet revolution in laser materials processing technology and tangentially in lean manufacturing  around the world. Most metal manufacturing operations are subtractive with chunks of metal being machined down to final shape. Large amounts of scrap metal result, creating a new term "scrap management." Years ago I worked on a process that used a laser beam to cut the ribbons of metal resulting from turning operations into short pieces that could be blown into barrels for later recycling. These densely packed barrels freed up unproductive floor space in the machine shop and greatly reduced scrap management. However, it was judged too expensive because of the investment and operating cost of the lasers then used.

At about the same time, I was involved in a government-sponsored program to use the energy - in a focused or shaped laser beam impinging on the surface of hard-to-machine metal parts - just ahead of the cutting tool, which acted to soften the metal, leading to faster machining rates, less tool wear, and smoother finishes. 

The lasers we were using were also being used in a cladding process where layers of melted powder metals were laid down to create a new, more wear-resistant surface. We did play around with building up layers, but not to create a specific shape. Later, this technology was expanded at United Technologies as the laser beam melted and deposited metal to create an aircraft turbine component.

Others experimented with the buildup process and several limited-success activities evolved. Holding back more widespread acceptance of this process was the usual reluctance on the part of industry to accept change.

Early in the history of industrial lasers. the Brits had had the idea of cost-effective manufacturing of quantities-of one, but the concept never took root: too advanced for a slow-to-change industry. The evolution of "lean manufacturing" and the ideal of building quantities of one at a competitive price began to take hold several years ago. Some impetus came from the U.S. government, where the DOD sensed the future need for sources that could cope with the demand for replacement parts from industries that had long since stopped producing.

Sitting in the wings was the rapid prototyping industry that had expanded its capabilities into rapid manufacturing and was experimenting with deposition of metal powders to make useable parts. A conjunction of this technology with the needs of lean manufacturing and the availability of powerful cost-effective fiber laser sources created the process now known as additive manufacturing and its subset, laser additive manufacturing (LAM).

The Laser Institute of America recognized this technology as a process of the future and thus convened the first LAM conference in Houston last year. This year’s event, again held in Houston, will expand its frontiers beyond aerospace into the more mundane needs of small- to medium-sized machine shops. Interested parties, for a start, might consider attending LAM and joining the growing network of LAM enthusiasts.

ILS will feature articles on this subject, commencing with the March/April issue, where industry in the US is challenged to take up this technology. Like many technologies, its time has come, and the future is very bright for LAM.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Happy New Year - I think

There's something about the start of a new year that I find refreshing. Maybe it's just looking at a calendar with 12-month listings of mostly good happenings such as: conferences, trade shows, and overseas trips, with the exception of a couple of not-so-good events, like a root canal I am scheduled for in February.

I find it somewhat amusing that the end-of-the-year comments on the Internet were, for the most part, negative about the world's manufacturing economic forecasts and then after January 1 these same commentators turned more positive by finding rays of sunshine in the same bad news they promulgated in December. Just a few examples from Industry Week:

Then - German Industrial Output Tumbles Again and Japanese Manufacturers' Confidence Dives
Now - Advanced Manufacturing Comes to Life in 2012 and Make Your Move: Peril or Profit – What Should You Expect from the Economy in 2013.

Three commentaries, one up - two down.

The early industrial laser news has been mostly positive, with several companies spending hoarded cash to buy some market share, for example Coherent beefing-up its ultra-fast pulse laser business with the purchase of Lumera and Leco (Lincoln Electric) buying Tennessee Rand and adding this systems builder to go along with last year's buy of special laser system maker, Wayne Trail.

I like this laser news as it presages more good news as these and other companies restructure to meet the expected surge later this year: a subject I'll address at this year's Laser & Photonics Market seminar in San Francisco next month.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Seasons greetings

It's that time of year when many of us reflect on the past 12 months -- and if we are honest, we give some thought to what we did that didn't quite work out the way we had planned. Out of this may come a resolution to not do such things again in the new year. I come at this from a different, more pragmatic, direction: basically, what happened is history and move on from there.

The reason I bring this up is that I have completed my Annual Industrial Laser Market Review, which will appear in the January/February issue of Industrial Laser Solutions magazine and also be presented at the annual Laser & Photonics Marketplace seminar in San Francisco (February 4th) -- in which I will gracefully acknowledge that I pretty much called the laser economic performance as it worked out.

Nursing a strained arm, a result of too much back-patting, I will bravely attempt to crystal-ball the 2013 markets. Like the most watched prognosticator, the weatherman, I'll take credit for the good forecast and ignore the bad; maybe that's where I developed my pragmatic attitude. (Just kidding, folks -- I don't get, nor want, gold medals for calling it right.)

The industrial laser market was 'so-so' in 2012, with some sectors having a great year and others a not-so-bad year, much of which came in quarterly ups and downs through the year, not too many in sync. However, the third quarter seemed to be the most common for "down" news, a result I posit was due to laser and systems suppliers working off their 2011 backlogs. If companies were supplying the aerospace, transportation, energy, agriculture, personal communications, and medical devices markets, their fortunes were up. Since these sectors represent a major chunk of the total laser market, it was a good thing. My take on the other segments was that they had just an average year and as a consequence 2012 ended up in the mid-single-digit range for growth.

For 2013, I am not convinced that the laser market will repeat the same performance. A message that came across when talking with exhibitors at the last big show of 2012, Fabtech, was to expect a flat year. Projections for 2013 ranged from that to low growth, with the exception coming from some of the 'star' sectors of 2012. I won't give away my analysis results; you'll have to read it in ILS or attend the San Francisco seminar. Suffice it to say, it's not the brightest forecast I have made.

Other than that, please have a happy holiday season -- and let's think positive about 2013.