Monday, November 28, 2011

Enthusiasm and expansion evident at Fabtech 2011

We had early clues that Fabtech International (Chicago, November 14-17) was going to be a success from exhibitors and from the FMA/SME organizers' preregistation numbers. But when the doors opened at McCormick Place, thousands of visitors lined up for badges, and at the opening bell, mobs of determined manufacturing people surged into the North and South Halls, many heading purposely for specific exhibits. And the second day of the show was even more packed than the first.

I was sitting on the mezzanine of the large TRUMPF exhibit as the opening bell sounded. Hordes of visitors could be seen rushing toward the major exhibits that were clustered near the front of the South Hall. Below me in the TRUMPF exhibition area, every system and sales representative were immediately engaged in discussions. The same held true at many other exhibits I could see from my perch.

At the end of the first two days, exhibitors had all met or exceeded past show records, and many were posting sold signs on the equipment on display. Several major exhibitors told me about sales consummated at the show. For example Burke Doar, VP Sales of TRUMPF Inc. said the 12 units booked on the first day was in-line with good show records of the past.

So I set off to ask all the major industrial laser system exhibitors their show experience and their impression of the current year's sales and prospects for 2012. Exhibitor after exhibitor praised the show; expected to have a good, great or record sales year; and looked forward to a continued good, but not great 2012.

These opinions were backed up by solid facts on the strength of key markets: agricultural and heavy equipment, aerospace, transportation and energy. Asked about the fabricated metal job shop sector, most were equally positive about it, even though it has been feeling the pinch of tight bank lending policies which has required some creative financial arrangements on the part of the equipment sellers.

The companies that participate in the annual market survey I conduct all modified the conservative estimates they made at the beginning of the year. It looks like the North American sheet metal system sales for 2011 will be about 725 units, a number equal to the very good pre-recession year of 2001.

So how to explain this excellent performance of the laser cutting system suppliers in light of all the negative media comments on the state of manufacturing in North America? I received a number of explanations, but the one that seemed most factual was that the industries served by laser cutting systems were not experiencing market problems, and buyers of capital equipment had the resources to expand their business, even in what seems to be a shaky economy. Yes, I heard that some buying decisions were made after long deliberations, but in the end these buyers were betting that the manufacturing market had a positive future.

Fabtech 2011 was a great show. As this was being written we still had not received the official show attendance figures. Exhibitors left with good feelings about near-term prospects, and visitors were upbeat about their business prospects. Counter to prevailing sentiment among the economists, yes, but I could not find weaknesses in the market forecasts we heard.

Posted by David Belforte

Thursday, November 10, 2011

ICALEO more international than ever

This comment on the recent ICALEO held in Orlando is being written rather tardily as I am just now recovering from the 7-day power outage in my area brought on by the ravages of what is now being called THE October Northeaster, not with any fondness.

ICALEO 2011 was, judging by attendee comments, a very successful event, with 523 registered for the Congress with 51% coming from the US. Attendance was up 12.5% from last year's event in Anaheim. 262 papers and posters were presented in several concurrent sessions, a decrease of 6%over last year. Of the papers presented 82% were by international authors, a situation that caused considerable talk among long-time attendees. Some Program Committee members attribute the limited papers from the U.S to restrictive non-disclosure arrangements imposed by US research sponsors preventing this work from being shared.

On the other hand, ICALEO is as, the name says, international, and the organizers, the Laser Institute of America, has become an international society, so a diverse membership and subsequent diversity in conference presenters is a natural consequence.

Five ILS Editorial Advisors attended this year's event along with me, which made coverage of concurrent sessions and the micro (LMF) and macro (LMP) conferences easier. Their thoughts are incorporated in this conference perspective.

The large discrepancy in paper sources is seen as both a plus and minus, with one advisor commenting that a large number of papers from Germany was "a delight," while another remarked that only 18% of papers were US-originated and that some of these were from authors working for foreign companies. The two conference program committees were actually about evenly split in terms of domestic versus international membership so one can’t find obvious prejudice in author selections with them.

Several advisors sensed the lack of US papers and assigned the blame, in part, on the US government, which, as one said, "has never been able to devise and implement a complex action plan to support industrial research." Another noted that, "Someone needs to lead a credible lobbying effort to find federal funding to help US companies apply laser technology to compete with similar efforts in Europe."

To most observers, this year's ICALEO was slanted toward solid-state laser applications with fiber and disc lasers making up two-thirds of the macro (LMP) sessions, of which 2/3rds were fiber related and 1/3rd disc. The papers featuring disc lasers were mostly from Germany and the ratio of fiber to disc was 3:1. In the micro (LMF) conference, 40% of the papers featured ultra-fast pulse (ps and fs) laser applications and the remainder were ns lasers (36%) and long pulse (24%).

The conclusion one can draw from the preponderance of solid-state applications in the papers would be that most of the advanced laser material processing work being done today is with these lasers as opposed to the CO2 laser, which, while being used in more mature applications, commercially dominates annual sales: about 50% of 2011 revenues.

ILS picked up on this trend several years ago and has been featuring applications with fiber, disc, and UFP lasers in many issues.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The weather outside is frightful

In this spot was intended to be a report on ICALEO 2011 by the Industrial Laser Solutions Editorial Advisors and me, but Mother Nature played a dirty trick on most of southern New England. She dropped an historic, for October, snowfall (12-18 inches) that coated the fully-leaved trees, causing severe damage to the trees and subsequently to the power lines. This is being written from my car, where I have cruised central Massachusetts looking for WiFi to connect with.

So just a brief note to say power is off, but when it returns, a full report on ICALEO will be posted.