What a crowd in Las Vegas. Official attendance numbers, which are audited, aren't released yet, but early estimates are that today may have been one of FABTECH's most well-attended opening days.
Vendors I spoke with were happy with the crowds, and attendees said their shops were busy. Some have seen a little softening of late. Some are very worried about what will happen in Washington. But for the most part, people say business is good.
Admittedly, show attendees may not be the best representative sample of the industry. Businesses in dire situations probably don't bother attending the show at all. Regardless, the metal forming and fabricating niche remains a bright spot in manufacturing and the economy overall.
Today, two booths, coincidentally adjacent to one another, really showed what manufacturing may look like a generation from now.
At one booth sat Scott Malkasian, owner of MicroArc, an eight-person, Worcester, Mass.-based job shop specializing in micro-TIG and micro-laser welding. The process can be manual or semiautomatic, and it requires extreme skill and dexterity.
Malkasian grew up in the tool and die business, and he discovered that he loved working with his hands. He got his hands on a micro-TIG welding system--in which the operator performs a weld looking through a microscope--and found he had a knack for it. Today he can manipulate that wire perfectly to create a cosmetically perfect, incredibly tiny weld.
Not surprisingly, his greatest worry in the years to come is finding good help. Some of his employees have been with him for years and will be retiring soon. Who will replace them? It's hard enough to find conventional TIG welders--and micro-TIG and laser welding is an entirely different ballgame.
Adjacent to MicroArc is Rethink Robotics, a Boston company that has developed a rather anthropomorphic pick-and-place robot that can be programmed almost intuitively by an operator. Behavioral-based robotics programming allows operators to program a robot by showing the primary points--moving its arm from one place to another--and the robot essentially takes it from there, discovering the most efficient path on its own. A combination of sensors allows the robot to adapt to change, so if one part is positioned slightly differently from the next, the robot senses it and adapts on the fly.
These systems are designed for short-run applications. So once a lot of, say, 100 is processed, an operator can wheel it over to another part of the floor to perform an entirely different pick-and place operation.
For now, the technology is limited to simple pick-and-place work and similar tasks. But it will probably never replace a skilled tradesman like Malkasian.
The two booths really show the two kinds of people manufacturing may need in the decades to come. On the one hand, it will need people who can think logically and succinctly about efficiency and part flow, then program the automation to conduct the task.
On the other hand, manufacturing will need people who will be technical gurus, those who know everything and anything about a process, and who know how to perform it well time after time. These are hands-on people, creative in their own right. They know how to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles by moving their hands just right way.
Will fabricators be able to find these people? More than the election results, the fiscal cliff, or any other issue spouted daily (or even hourly) by the talking heads on cable news, the skilled labor issue--finding good help--towers over everything. Those businesses that do find good people probably will be the ones that experience growth through 2013 and beyond.