Chicago delivers big numbers for Fabtech 2015

Fabtech 2015, North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, and welding event, opened its doors to a large crowd waiting to visit.

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I happened to be exiting the South Hall at McCormick Place in Chicago after a pre-show interview as they opened the doors to a large crowd waiting to visit Fabtech, North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, and welding event. You can add laser processing to this list, as I tallied more than 100 companies offering some sort of laser product associated with the advertised processes. On my list of "should-sees" totaling 65 companies were three dozen "must-see" leading suppliers of laser equipment for cutting, welding, marking, and additive manufacturing.

On Tuesday morning, the waiting crowds were double that of Monday's, and the aisles stayed jammed all day. Conclusion: the show organizers' modest goals of 44,000 were probably easily surpassed—I heard estimates of more than 50,000 from reliable exhibitors.

But this not a numbers game. What counts is the buyers and according to every exhibitor I met, they were out in force. Now, exuberance is a show disease and I have seen it all too often—but when questioned, the exhibitors cited industries on the move and buying decisions for the next six months at a very high probability level.

I am always asked what was the biggest hit or hottest product at the show. Look at the numbers above and tell me how one picks winners from the quality products being shown by these companies. Overall for metal cutting, the fiber laser was everywhere and the lack of CO2 laser cutters among the 27 companies showing these systems sent a loud and clear message—the days of high-power CO2 lasers for metal cutting are numbered. I lost count of the actual number of fiber units being shown, but I think the several new 8kW introductions were the final wedge in the hearts of CO2 advocates. These lasers are outperforming CO2 in speed, and matching them in cut quality and in metal thickness ranges. Plus, they are more energy-efficient, compact, and maintenance-free—not to mention selling price-competitive.

When you cut as rapidly as these fiber lasers, you need to have sophisticated material handling to prevent production bottlenecks and all the leading suppliers had automation packages neatly integrated with the cutters to maximize the systems' output. I was constantly made aware by every cutting system supplier that automation is now the key word in laser sheet metal cutting. I heard from many suppliers that even small job shops are now considering fully automated laser cutters for their next purchase to maximize profitability.

The product other than high-power fiber lasers that intrigued me was the rapid turnaround of high-power diode lasers with high beam quality for metal cutting. At Fabtech 2014, this laser was a curiosity—but at the 2015 show, it became reality. Mazak and Panasonic showed TeraDiode kilowatt-level units, one a tube cutter and the other a multi-axis cutter/welder. Last year there were none, yet in 2015 there were two—who knows what will be seen in Las Vegas when Fabtech 2016 opens.

First-day crowds can be deceiving and sorting out the badge colors to establish exhibitors from attendees in jammed aisles is difficult, so I look for attendees carrying tote bags of product literature and they were everywhere. Chicago delivered on big numbers. Exhibitor-interviewed comments on closing day ranged from "great" to "largest ever." No question, Fabtech 2015 was a resounding success.

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