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

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