Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Finishing the year on an upswing

A little bird arrived at the feeder this morning, trilling that it was officially the first day of winter, a fact I already knew as the first snowflakes of a passing ocean storm covered the ground. It’s three days until Christmas, and a resolute band of sentimentalists, each humming the old Bing Crosby chestnut “White Christmas,” have their collective fingers crossed that the dusting will last until Christmas morning.

Another clue that the holiday is coming is the spate of e-mail holiday greetings I have been receiving for a few days now. I still receive old-fashioned mailed cards, which I especially appreciate as these are among the nicest greeting cards received.

The other clue is the buildup of e-mail messages advising that this or that company will stay closed through the coming week to “allow their employees to celebrate the holiday season,” an admirable gesture. Actually, I fall in this category, taking vacation between Christmas and New Year. So don’t look for a blog from me next week.

I always despise the end-of-year editorial musings that are beginning to appear, which is funny because I am an historian of sorts, but not an instant historian, I guess. Thus, I refrain from viewing and/or reading all the retrospectives that will permeate the Web, television news, and newspapers.

Since I will be on vacation next week, I’ll give you my annual review now. 2010 was a better year than 2009: the recession ended, officially, and the laser industry, for the most part, turned the corner and finished up the year with good financials and backlogs that presage a better 2011.

The laser industry breathed a big sigh of relief that the corner had been turned and then patted itself on the back that some had set revenue and backlog records and that most see a strong first half in 2011. On that note, what can I say? Finishing the year on the upswing is a nice feeling, and the immediate future certainly looks bright for the industrial laser community.

So a very happy holiday to all, a special happy New Year, and hopes for a more profitable year.

Oh, by the way, the sun just came out and melted all the snow, so we, here in this part of New England, will probably have a green Christmas. Sorry, Bing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tis the season

This is a particularly distracting time of the year. Even if we took the Christmas Holiday out of the month, many of us would still be feeling the end of the year pressures which have more importance for those whose fiscal year ends on December 31st. Many companies have shifted their fiscal year closing to coincide with the federal and state governments if they do business with those entities. But for many others, the end of the year is also the end of their fiscal year.

For them, trying to cope with all the pressures of the holiday season compounded by the need to close the company books on a positive note can prove to be a difficult one-two punch.

When I had a manufacturing company, we were always increasing employee’s overtime to get that one last shipment out the door so that the sales book looked as good as possible. I can recall resorting to all kinds of accounting magic to get shipments on the books even if it was to a local warehouse where the equipment was turned around on January 1st to be “modified” prior to shipment to the customer. The brief stay in the warehouse qualified it as shipped in the current year.

I thought about all these pressures the other night as I attended a performance of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It must have been the umpteenth time I have sat through this classic, but for the first time I had some sympathy for the “villain” of the piece, Ebenezer Scrooge. Why did this rendering make me empathize with the poor put-upon business man - hounded by charity requests, beset by employee problems and so overwhelmed that he planned to work on Christmas day?

I think it was the intent of the show’s director to have Scrooge become less of an ogre and more of an addled businessman trying to cope with the end of the year and the holiday at the same time. Mind you I am not condoning his practices, but when those charity workers arrived and asked for a donation and Scrooge recited one of the classic speeches in Dickens’s work, a diatribe on the injustices faced by the poor business owner, I almost found myself nodding my head. Good directing and good acting made a sympathizer out of me, at least for that scene in the play.

Discussing this later with my guests, I decided, erroneously, that Scrooge was a candidate for the Tea Party, at least the smaller government part. At the close of the play when Scrooge relents and turns into a fuzzy darling, I almost called him a traitor to his cause. I’m not certain that, in those Victorian times, he would have had some public way to express his outrage, as we do with the Internet, but the poor man, I told my guests, may just have been looking for a forum to speak his piece.

One of my guests, my sister, opined that I had had too much wine before we went to the play and that my thinking was muddled. I chalked her reasoning up to holiday fever, where she along with others has “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.”

The next issue of ILS is ready for printing a week before Christmas. The publisher closes the third quarter a week later, but the end of the fiscal year is still three months away. So all I have to do is get the editorial finalized and I, too, can enjoy the December refrain, Happy Holidays to all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homestretch perspectives

It’s hard to believe but we are in the homestretch of 2010, with the end of the year just a few short weeks away. The speed with which the year passed may be attributable to the increase in business for most aspects of industrial laser material processing. It started in San Francisco last January where the buzz at Photonics West was the turnaround in the markets. At LASYS in Stuttgart, halfway through the year, industry recovery was being openly talked about, with fingers crossed, as reality set in. At EuroBlech in Hannover and Fabtech in Atlanta this fall, the end of the recession was obvious as exhibitors were once again finding strong quoting action from show attendees.

There is no question that the expansive activity in the semiconductor, microprocessing, energy and medical device markets spurred record sales at solid-state and fiber laser manufacturers. Revenue growth was almost enough to offset the laggard fabricated metal product markets for high power CO2 lasers. The introduction of new fiber laser powered sheet metal cutters helped to generate lost revenue in that market as this cutting technology was finding new customers.

At EuroBlech, a half dozen new fiber laser cutter suppliers showed products, bringing the total of product suppliers to more than 25. Does this market need this many equipment suppliers? Fair question, except one must remember that there are more than 75 companies offering CO2 powered metal cutting systems globally. And most of the fiber laser cutter suppliers sell CO2 systems also.

Looked at from a different perspective, one could speculate that for the most part fiber laser cutter equipment is basically another product in the sales catalog of CO2 sales people, so to them a sale is just a sale. Concerning the laser makers, less than a handful manufacture only one laser type, with most now offering a choice to system integrators.

Considering this, one might ask why there is competition between CO2 and fiber lasers for sheet metal cutting. There seems to be sufficient business to satisfy most everyone. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out in 2011.

Speaking of 2011, business prospects look good for a continuation of the growth pattern set in 2010. The great unknown is the economic situation in Europe and the fall out from this impacting North America and Asia. This situation has the makings of a market buster, but at this time we do not have a reason to adjust our very positive forecast that will appear in the January /February issue of ILS.