Wednesday, September 29, 2010

ICALEO: From modest beginnings to world-recognized conference

Twenty-nine years ago at the Anaheim Marriott, I had the pleasure, as General Chairman, to call to order the first International Laser Processing Conference (ILPC). This event, the first of its kind, was the culmination of three years of planning and diplomatic negotiations between cooperating societies. In 1978, as president of the Laser Institute of America, I conceived the idea of the LIA joining forces with the Japan Laser Processing Society and the Japan Society for Laser technology to bring together the best industrial laser materials technology in Japan and the United States. At that time, these two countries were at the forefront of process development and Europe had not yet made its mark.

Looking back, an international conference on a nascent technology was a brash idea, as it had not been done yet. And negotiating to get two, then-competing organizations in Japan, each led by a strong personality, to agree to co-sponsor, was an even brasher idea. Behind the scenes meetings in Japan resulted in a momentous, for the time, meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Tokyo, where the Japanese partners put aside their reticence and agreed to take an equal share with the LIA to make ILPC happen. At the time, I felt a little like the Secretary General of the United Nations, bargaining with strong personalities for the betterment of all participants.

With the strong support of a marketing team from my then-employer, Avco Everett Metalworking Lasers, we planned, organized, and conducted the first ILPC. Thirty-three papers by leading process developers in the two countries made up two days of technical sessions. The team produced a bound copy of the proceedings for handout at the meeting, a first for a technical conference. The registered attendees, many from Europe, filled the ballroom at the Marriott, and the consensus opinion was that ILPC was a great success and that it should go forward. The European attendees, mainly researchers from Germany, went on to be the highly visible drivers behind Germany’s growth as a power in industrial laser material processing.

The LIA recognized the need for an annual event and responded accordingly; the following year the first International Congress on Applications of Lasers and Electro-optics was held. This year marks the 29th anniversary of ICALEO, born from that modest joint US/Japan conference, with an audience five times larger than in 1981.

Looking at the proceedings of ILPC 30 years later is a little like looking at the history of industrial laser activity in manufacturing. Among the topics were: hermetic sealing of titanium, cutting stainless steel, high resolution mask repair, heat treating low carbon steel, machining ceramics, manufacturing blanking tools, surface alloying and laser marking, and serialization. And the list of presenters reads like a who’s who of laser process developers.

ICALEO has become THE international advanced laser material processing conference, recognized around the world as a window on applications for the future. And to think that it all traces back to that brash decision to hold ILPC.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It’s not over till the fat lady sings

That sound you are hearing is the wild celebration going on in the ILS office as we revel in response to the notice that the recession was over in June 2009. The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research made the announcement to deafening silence in Washington on September 20th. The Republicans and the Democrats were reticent to celebrate because the former won’t admit the economy is growing and the latter is still sensitive to the lack of new jobs. The Tea Party doesn’t know how to react as it was good news, and they don’t know how to deal with that; you can’t get mad about good news.

However, we here at ILS are overjoyed. As a matter of fact, we almost decided to make yesterday a company holiday until we got bogged down over the celebration date, September 20th 2010, or the end of June 2009.

We did begin to discuss the timing of the announcement: how come it took so long for the Committee to become aware that the economy had turned? The chairman of the Committee, quoted in the Wall Street Journal,September 21, 2010, said the committee was concerned that announcing the recession had ended a year ago might be confusing as many people “think recession means a bad time and there’s no question we’re [still] in bad times.” Excuse me, since when is good news, of any kind, confusing? When you are down as low as we were in June 2009, any good news is a blessing. You may recall the ILS effort to find a “Sliver of Light” back in those grim days.

The industrial laser marketplace seems to be on a solid upward track, especially in the microprocessing sector. We have been very cautious about the macroprocessing sector, specifically the market segment for laser cutting for sheetmetal fabricating, which stubbornly seems to have reached a neutral phase. Hopes for a stronger recovery in this market have suppliers focusing on EuroBlech next month and Fabtech in November. The former was incorrectly judged as a positive success two years ago when exhibitors misread visitor enthusiasm as a sign of prosperity only to be rudely awakened on December 1 when orders cancelations began to roll in. So, many observers at the Hanover show this year will be extremely cautious in assessing good news from the exhibit floor.

Here at ILS the party is winding down as the ephemeral nature of the celebration took hold and reality set in. We decided that the June 2009 turning point was the official date and not the belated announcement from the government, and that dull employment news overwhelmed a partying mood. Oh well, it was a short but invigorating moment, and I noticed smiles as we returned to our daily routine.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The ups and downs of forecasting

I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little weary with alternating good and bad news from the global manufacturing countries and on a micro scale individual manufacturing companies.

As an example; the manufacturing economy news from Germany has swung wildly from very bad to miraculous recovery, back to bad in just a few short months. Back in June at LASYS in Stuttgart I heard a Federal Government Minister singing the blues about the sorry state of the Mittelstand in Germany not being able to compete with their opposite numbers in China. He was all gloom and doom as were several industry leaders at a later press conference. And just a month later German business confidence was up.

I don’t know if you have ever done the following but I did as it occurred to me that this economic reporting had weaknesses so I simply have listed references’ that I saved as background for my Annual Economic Review of the industrial laser market. I have inserted directional arrows to reflect my emotional ups and downs. I am not picking on Germany but it is a world leader in the production and use of industrial lasers, so it serves as an interesting example

German Industrial Orders Show Weak Growth (AP - January 22) ↓
German Manufacturing Orders Unexpectedly Declined in December
(Bloomberg February 4) ↓
German Manufacturing Orders Extend Record Plunge (Bloomberg March 11)↓
German manufacturing gauge climbs to record high (Market Watch April 22) ↑
German manufacturing orders surged in March signaling rate of Germany’s recovery is gathering speed (Fin Facts May 6) ↑
German Manufacturing Orders Look Strong (Seeking Alpha June 7) ↑
German Manufacturing Orders Fall (WSJ July 7) ↓
German Business Confidence Up In July (AP July 23) ↑
Unexpected Decline in German Manufacturing Output (RTT News Aug 6) ↓
German manufacturing orders drop 2.2% in July (Market Watch Sept 15) ↓

So, should I panic in October or just wait for another economic news reversal? I had a mentor who taught me more about economic forecasting then I ever learned in my university days. I shall always remember his caution, “Look at a forecast as a snapshot in time. It’s what you see today and it will change tomorrow.”

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Not laboring on Labor Day

Labor Day was officially established as a federal holiday by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1984, an action which was seen as an antidote to the violent government/labor relations of that period. The original concept was to celebrate the strength of the labor unions and to honor the industrious workers of America. Over the years the holiday lost its original focus and more recently has become the “unofficial” end of summer and the start of a new academic year.

This year, for many in the United States, Labor Day will be an anachronism, a day to celebrate workers when more than 9% of them are unemployed, caught in the fallout from the just-ended recession. There will be one or two lofty speeches, generally ignored, and some political puffery, especially in an election year. But on the whole, for many of us unaffected by Hurricane Earl, it will just be a very pleasant long weekend that marks the end of a too long baseball season (if your team is out of the playoffs) and the start of the long awaited return of college and professional football, with all the optimism an unblemished record brings.

Over the years I have editorialized about the plight of the worker in this country's manufacturing industries as companies moved to more automated practices that tried the capability level of their workers, but also displaced many who were made redundant.

China, one of the world’s most vibrant manufacturing sectors, is undergoing its own wrenching labor unrest as workers are winning concessions from factory owners by demanding more equitable salaries as they see a burgeoning middle class, which they cannot join, enjoying a more prosperous way of life. Other countries are taking advantage of this labor unrest, and industry in the Asian nations is flexing its muscle to offer alternatives to manufacturing in China.

In Europe, the engine that pumps the economy, Germany, is bemoaning the loss of labor as transient workers that filled the shops have returned to their native countries, which in turn are bidding to be part of the industrial market and to compete ironically with Germany.

I can’t recall a recent Labor Day when there has been so much stress in the global workplace. I’ve been sitting on the shore of a pleasant body of water located in New Hampshire watching others enjoy the warm water that always seems more delightful in September here in New England. It’s so peaceful that it is hard to work up the energy needed to editorialize about Labor Day. So exercising my rights to a “day of rest and celebration,” I’ve decided to pass on any pontificating about happenings in manufacturing and to just enjoy the end of summer.

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