Attendees of the 2004 Fabtech show in Cleveland got a glimpse at new fabrication equipment, as well as a look at the future of manufacturing.

CLEVELAND - The chugging of fabrication machines wasn't the only sound coming out of the I-X Center in Cleveland during the 2004 Fabtech show. The buzz on manufacturing, jobs and the economy was close to deafening.

Each year, the show, sponsored by the Fabricators & Manufactures Association and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, gives attendees a firsthand look at the latest metal-forming and fabricating equipment.

The Oct. 26-28 show was no different. Close to 14,000 individuals attended the three-day event to see the newest products from 450 exhibiting companies. But this year, attendees also had the opportunity to hear about the current state of the manufacturing industry, where it is heading, and how facility owners and employees can succeed in the year ahead.

Esab rolled out its Hydrocut Pedestal Waterjet Plasma Combination Cutting Machine during the Fabtech show in Cleveland. The company also showcased a number of welding and power-source products.

Fabricating the future

"Manufacturing is coming back. Take a look at the trade-show floor and this is apparent," said FMA President and CEO Gerald Shankel during the Fabtech keynote event.

Shankel introduced the show's keynote speaker, Grant Aldonas, undersecretary of international trade for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Aldonas reinforced what many Fabtech attendees and exhibitors were saying during the show: The last few years in the manufacturing industry have been hard, but relief is on the way. He explained that in 2000, when President Bush first took office, the manufacturing industry had seen a 6 percent economic decline.

"Today, manufacturing is up from when Bush took office," said Aldonas.

He also explained to attendees that the manufacturing industry received little help from elected officials over the last few years.

"Legislators and government neglected problems because the U.S. has such good manufacturing," he said.

But now, manufacturers and facility owners are getting some recognition and help from the federal government. Aldonas said the U.S. government has started to work with them to become more competitive globally. The government also created a new position, assistant secretary for manufacturing and services, to act as a liaison to the manufacturing industry.

Prima Laser Tools brought its CP3500 Industrial CO2 Laser to demonstrate its capabilities.

A pretty-good year

Some exhibitors at the Fabtech show agreed with Aldonas' assessment of improvement in the manufacturing industry. Many company officials said they were expecting an increase in profits, but it came quicker than some anticipated.

For example, Connecticut-based machinery and hand tools maker Trumpf Inc. saw its sales grow by 2.3 percent between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004. According to Rolf Biekert, president and CEO of Trumpf Inc., this level of success was eye-opening, especially after a few years of recession.

"We had an unexpected good year," he said. "After three years, you wouldn't expect it to take off like this."

And the company is continuing to see an upward trend: Trumpf reports that the first three months of the current fiscal year have been good, signaling a positive year ahead. The company is expecting to see a 6 percent to 7 percent increase in sales by the end of the fiscal year.

"We are very optimistic," Biekert said about the company's future. "Right now, people are looking for machines."

Welding equipment manufacturer Thermadyne Holding Corp. is also reporting good sales numbers.

"We've seen our business increase in double digits year-to-date since last year," said George Wilcox, vice president of corporate communications for Thermadyne. "Manufacturing is definitely improving, but I wouldn't classify it as a boom. We are optimistic that the trend will continue."

Attendees look at Scotchman Industries latest products, including the Duel Operator Ironworker.

Preparing for success

Conference sessions were shorter at this year's Fabtech, following a move started in 2003. The majority focused on understanding current and changing technologies. Attendees had the opportunity to take part in sessions tackling laser cutting, automated robotic welding, steel punching and water-powered cutting advancements. Welding and fabricating projects were discussed in sessions on coil slitting, tube bending and aluminum welding.

Like most of the show, the Fabtech conference sessions also dealt with economic recovery and profitability. The latest conference to join the Fabtech lineup was "Profit Growth Management," which offered tools to help fabricators and suppliers expand their moneymaking abilities. Other business courses included "World Class People: Attracting & Retaining People" and "Lean 101: Principles of Lean Manufacturing."

During lunch hours at the show, several business seminars were free to all attendees. These sessions went even further into the current economy and how business owners can stay competitive. The seminars included "10 Simple Steps to Winning Government Contracts" and "Key to New Product Success is in the Front End."

Andrew J. Birol, president of Pacer Associates Inc., presented "From Your Shop Floor to the Playing Field: Growing Your Business Systematically."

Birol pointed out that the manufacturing industry has had a tough few years, especially in Ohio, where many jobs have been sent overseas. But Birol told owners and plant managers how their companies could compete in a global market. He said companies should be optimistic about the future, as long as they focus on niche markets, pricing, and focusing on value and service over products.

Boschert Precision Machinery Co. demonstrated its Compact Revotool.

Changes coming next year

The future of Fabtech is also something exhibitors are optimistic about.

"Fabtech has always been a great show to reach actual buyers," said Jim Ely, vice president of communications for Airgas Inc., a distributor of specialty gases, welding and safety products.

Airgas, like many Fabtech exhibitors, said they make sure they are part of the show each year. Attendance for 2004 was down from previous Cleveland shows, but manufacturers say they see the benefit in consistently being involved.

"People are more optimistic, they're building more," said Ely. "They are looking for the right solutions."

Ely said that he believes the smaller turnout at Fabtech is because customers are busy and have more work to do to keep up with demand. The individuals that came to the I-X Center need new products and "are truly interested," according to Ely.

Organizers expect next year's Fabtech show to bring in more attendees, since it will merge with the American Welding Society's annual event. Organizers are predicting more than 350,000 square feet of exhibits and participation from 900 companies.

The joint trade show will debut Nov. 13-16 in Chicago.