As a reporter for the industry, I’ve always treated FABTECH as a kind of metal fabrication physical. A healthy show is a sign of a healthy industry--usually.
Two years ago FABTECH’s opening-day attendance--on Oct. 6--was the biggest on record, despite the financial crisis that exploded onto the headlines just weeks before. Sure, some attributed that attendance to the show’s locale. Las Vegas is a great place to visit for the weekend, see the show on Monday, and then head out of town.
But deep down we all hoped the industry was at least somewhat immune to the mess on Wall Street. Metal fabricators made real things; they didn’t wheel and deal complex financial instruments. Everyone was nervous, but many on the show floor told me their shops still had backlogs. They were worried about 2009, but they weren’t panicking. Despite what we were hearing about over-the-counter derivatives of toxic assets, many felt manufacturing would ride out the storm just fine.
Mere weeks after that show, those backlogs dried up as the credit crisis spread throughout the economy. We all know what happened next. FABTECH 2008 showed a healthy industry. It had symptoms of bad things to come, but few predicted just how sick the industry--and the entire economy--would get. The industry had caught a bug, and it was sitting dormant, waiting to manifest itself during the weeks and months ahead.
Then came FABTECH 2009. Back in Chicago, attendees said their firms were getting back on their feet. For many companies business bottomed out in the middle of 2009, and since then they experienced slow to moderate growth. It may not have been enough to hire back significantly, but enough to know that the company at least would survive. An inventory rebuild was on the horizon, and manufacturing was about to lead the economic recovery. Still, the industry was jaded, tired, and cautious. The metal fabrication sector was out of bed and back on its feet, but it wasn’t ready to head to the gym again
This year as I walked the show floor, I could tell the industry has been working out in a big way. FABTECH 2010, which ran Nov. 2-4 in Atlanta, had more product introductions, and attendees and exhibitors alike were positioning themselves for stronger growth. On the first day I approached several attendees who told me their companies had acquired former competitors. Several exhibitors announced acquisitions too. Wilson Tool International acquired Canada’s Exacta FabTool and Exacta Precision; Miller Electric had acquired the welding assets of Panasonic Factory Solutions Co. of America.
One attendee, Billy Petru of Shiner, Texas-based Kaspar Wire Works and its sister company Ranch Hand, summed up his company’s health this way: “In a roundabout way, the bad economy helped us. Some of our competitors went by the wayside, and we took market share.”
The industry has been pumping iron, and it may be ready to go running again. There will be potholes ahead (uncertainties in taxes, health care, structural unemployment, and so on), but for now many firms are finding they can pick up the pace and not even break a sweat.