Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The industrial laser spring

Why do most people seem to need external reinforcement of situations they have already evaluated? Over the past two weeks, two events, EASTEC 2011 in the U.S. and Laser World of Photonics in Munich, put the seal of approval on the roaring recovery in the industrial laser market. No longer is it a wish; it is a full blown phenomenon.

At EASTEC, a regional manufacturing trade show which has become a must-do for makers of laser marking and engraving systems, about two dozen companies showed their products, many new to market, to a crowd of 11,000 Northeast manufacturers who braved three days of rain to scurry between five halls at windy West Springfield fairgrounds.

The common thread this observer picked up was that suppliers were dancing on the grave of the recent recession. Not only was it dead and buried, it’s ugly memory was almost erased as the industrial laser market is booming with record sales and bookings, and the future looks very bright for continuing good business at pre-recession levels.

Four thousand miles and a week apart, the good burghers of Munich welcomed a record crowd to this year's renewal of the biennial event. We knew that this one would be different when on opening day, which traditionally does not attract German visitors in large numbers, crowds entered the halls as the opening bell rang, a pattern that was in effect for three of the four show days. As the closing bell sounded. more than 27,500 visitors, an 8% rise over 2009, had pushed through the turnstiles.

What they saw was one of the most powerful displays of innovative industrial laser technology in the two Production halls of the six hall show. Product suppliers had used the recession to advantage, marshalling their reduced work force to focus on new products to introduce to a post-recession market.

On top of this, the German VDMA announced a 57% increase in industrial laser sales over 2009. But more exciting was the 2010 order intake of German companies: 90% over 2009 and within 25% of the record year of 2007, which looks to be reachable in 2012, a year and a half ahead of the industry consensus schedule

The more than 3200 attendees at the concurrent World of Photonics Congress heard hundreds of papers on the new applications, such as ultra-fast laser processing, that will be using the new products shown at the show. Topping it off, if you are a German supplier, was the Federal Ministry of Education and Research's announcement at this trade fair of itsone-billion Euro, ten-year investment to promote photonics research and development. Line up at the trough, guys.

Euphoria was the rule as personnel from over 1100 exhibitors made their way home from this -- the most successful ever -- Munich Show, The consensus of exhibitors and attendees was that business is great and will continue for the next 12 months.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Laser World buzz: Phenomenal growth

After two days here at Laser World of Photonics in Munich, it is clear that the laser business, especially the industrial laser sector, is having a great year globally and is recovering nicely from the recession which had left a lot of companies shaken about the future.

The VDMA, the organization that represents the machine tool industry, reports that orders received for new laser equipment in 2010 surpassed the record set in 2008. This suggests that laser revenues for 2011 may be able to exceed the record year of 2007.

Germany thrives on industrial laser and system exports, primairly to Southeast Asia (17%) including India. When shipments to Japan are factored in, Asia represents 23% of German exports. This is expected to drive their laser markets for the coming year or two.

Most of the buzz in the halls is about the phenomenal growth of the industrial laser market last year and this. Companies are projecting growth percentages from 35 to 65%, with bookings guaranteeing a record year for many.

Euphoria compared to two years ago reigns supreme amongst the hundreds of exhibitors here. You can confirm this by observing the show crowds filling the Munich beer gardens at night. I can vouch for this as I made an exhaustive survey.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Laser marking leads the manufacturing recovery

This week, for the 35th time, Eastec - the East Coast’s largest annual manufacturing event - was held in West Springfield, Mass. The show's organizer, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, was concerned that an entire week of rain and chilly weather would hold the expected attendance of 11,000 down, but this was allayed as cars started filling the parking spaces early on Tuesday and continued for the first two days.

This was the first Eastec since the recession turned the corner and the US manufacturing economy started its remarkable recovery. New England has responded more slowly than the national average, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowded aisles in the five show halls that featured over 900 exhibitors.

I attended because Eastec is a showplace for industrial laser systems exhibitors, especially those with laser marking equipment, of which I counted 24 companies showing markers powered by: fiber, solid-state, CO2,and diode lasers. Other suppliers showed laser welding, cladding, and microprocessing equipment.

I spoke at length with representatives of more than half the laser exhibitors and received almost uniform consensus that business had turned around during 2010 and that growth was continuing, for some at a record pace, into 2011. And the laser systems exhibitors, even those experiencing modest growth, were optimistic that 2011 would be a good year for their business.

Admittedly my survey was heavy with marking system suppliers, an industrial laser segment that historically has experienced double digit growth every year but one. Laser marking applications cut across the entire manufacturing sector so, in that respect, its success this year may be a stronger indication of the overall health of the manufacturing economy here in the US.

Monday, May 9, 2011

End educational turf wars to foster skilled workers

In an article entitled, "Help Wanted on the Factory Floor," by James R. Hagerty, appearing May 6th on the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, the author cites three factors that are causing the shortage of factory floor workers in the US. First is the remarkable growth in employment numbers for the last seven months. In seeming contrast to all the gloom and doom on the unemployment front for the past few years, US companies roared out of the recession, loaded for bear with a lean manufacturing team. Nice scenario, but they got caught in a dilemma as orders rolled in at an unexpected pace, which these companies were unprepared to handle with current staffing.

The second factor, baby boomer retirements, is starting to impact companies as their most experienced and productive workers are opting out for the “good” life. Hagerty says 25% of US manufacturing workers are 55 or older.

And finally, he, like many others, faults the US education systems for neglecting to nurture the skills that modern factory jobs require: math, science, and computer programming.

Of these factors, one, education, could have been corrected years ago. Job growth in the industrial market is a phenomenon. After two decades of reductions in factory employment, the US lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that will never be offset by employment blips such at we are now experiencing. Just drive around Michigan if you need an object lesson.

Yes, the baby boomer retirements on top of this will make manufacturing a bright spot on the employment scene, but this is not the cause for the lack of employable young people in what is left of the US manufacturing base.

I personally have been involved with the “technical education” problem for several decades. I got involved with a southern state educational system as it moved to lay a base for trained technical workers to serve relocating industry. And as president of the Laser Institute of America, I dedicated my term to fostering support of the nation’s secondary schools offering laser processing curricula. And I was enmeshed in a political tug-of-war at a state university that missed an opportunity to become a leader in industrial laser material processing education. There, I ran into one of the most hierarchal and entrenched groups: professional educational administrators.

In this example, as the department head I was advising struggled with an academic turf war, I used to ask, “Who is representing the students in these discussions?” It got so bad that when he and I went to the faculty club for lunch, we were made to wait or if we were lucky, we were led to a table near the kitchen door.

After years of observing how other countries approached the same educational situation, I remain more convinced that we here in the US talk a good game but rarely follow through with positive action. I have heard and read about the same problems finding trained skilled employees for decades and Hagerty’s examples could have applied 30 years ago.It’s great to acknowledge a problem in our educational systems but when solutions are bogged down by internal territorial protection policies, then we should address that problem first.

I am very impressed with the community college programs I have witnessed in the states that are attracting new industry. Administrators at these colleges, backed by state educational programs, are tuned into the needs of local industry and follow through by initiating new programs to supply the needed employees. I have met several enlightened and committed administrators of these programs who place students first. It's one bright light I see to alleviate the lack of skilled employees.