Monday, May 18, 2009

"As GM goes, so goes the country"

The Inn at St. Johns in Plymouth, Michigan, is a remarkable place to hold a technical conference. The Inn at St. Johns in Plymouth, Michigan, is a remarkable place to hold a technical conference. First built as a seminary in 1955 by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, the sprawling brick complex was turned into a hotel, conference and golf center in 1998, without significant changes to the marble floored and walled interior except for remodeling and conversion of one wing to a multi-room hotel. Almost smack dab in the middle of the facility is a beautiful chapel left over from the seminary days. At this year’s two-track Automotive Laser Applications Workshop (ALAW) the auto sessions were held in one wing and the fabrication sessions in the other, so if you were bouncing between them to sit in on presentations of interest you had to pass by the chapel.

Given the parlous state of the economy in Michigan and this week the continuing bad news from the auto industry as General Motors and Chrysler were forced to reduce the number of U.S. dealerships, visitors to the area were left in a depressed mood. So much so that a visit to the peaceful chapel, with time taken to contemplate that all things eventually sort themselves out and the auto industry will rebound, albeit in a decisively different look, gave the more thoughtful of us a fresher, renewed outlook on life. But I must concede that in the dozens of times I passed the chapel I never saw anyone seeking a higher perspective on life.

Attendance at this year’s event was down from past performance and that was not unexpected as conferences across the country are seeing drops of 25% or more in paid attendance. Perhaps most disturbing was a remark by an industry veteran, “where are all the users,” a reference to the attendance list which was dominated by suppliers of industrial laser products and representatives of several applications development institutions. By my count about 30% of registrants were considered as commercial users of industrial lasers. And since ALAW was designed to disseminate laser processing information to end users, one would have to conclude that the economic recession, and its impact on travel budgets was the culprit. In reality ALAW, except for its early years, has traditionally not drawn big numbers from the auto industry. Reasons for this abound but maybe it is time for the current organizers to reassess the auto theme and expand the applications presentations to other industrial areas.

Presenters in the automotive track described some interesting applications that can and will have impact in the auto industry and beyond, for example in battery and fuel cell processing. The opening session on tailored blank and tube welding sort of fell flat as the economic news from that sector is not at all good, especially with the demise of a leading supplier of blanks recently announced and the gross numbers for auto units to be built this year down dramatically.

News emanating from R&D work on battery and fuel cell welding was a highlight as the attendees were introduced to new technology assessments on laser welding of heretofore unweldable dissimilar metal combinations and materials that prior to the introduction of high brightness solid-state lasers were unweldable.

ALAW still has ongoing problems with commercialization in some of the talks, and the organizers should heed the comments of attendees and do away with these obviously biased and too-focused speakers. Maybe they should look at the number of attendees that leave the room as these sales pitches are delivered.

Remote welding, definitely an auto application, is always interesting to view as technology changes make this process almost a necessity in this industry. However, with the ongoing bad news in the industry, the edge is taken off the breakthroughs that are being made.

All-in-all ALAW met my expectations in a year when conference attendance is down. Overall they did all right. I was sorry to see that too large number of registrants did not show, but those that did were treated to some interesting news they can carry back to their companies.

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