Fabtech 2016 in Vegas hits the jackpot

Fabtech 2016, held in Las Vegas, drew an enthusiastic opening-day crowd that surprised several of the laser cutting system exhibitors.

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Fabtech 2016, held November 12-16 in Las Vegas, drew an enthusiastic opening-day crowd that surprised several of the laser cutting system exhibitors. Record first-day inquiries were recorded by a number of the leading equipment suppliers—one told me that first-day leads surpassed those received at the September 2016 IMTS show in Chicago. Activity slowed the next two days, but a total of 31,000 people came through the doors and even in the show's last hour, as I sat in the Blackbird Robotics booth in the farthest reaches of the companion Welding Show, stragglers were still seen talking with exhibitors.

We have often been pleased to see this Vegas show draw attendees from the other side of the Rockies and this year was no different—visitors from the Midwest and Canada were notable, as were an unexpected number from East Coast states. Attendees came from 120 countries, of which Mexico dominated.

Laser-related exhibitors totaled more than 45, and I was able to spend some time with about 30 of these in three days. I concentrated on the fabricating exhibits, where more than a dozen showed flat sheet laser cutters, all fiber laser base-powered, except on which in my view was one of the highlights of the show. Mazak Optonics introduced a 4kW direct diode-powered flat sheet cutter that had been designed specifically for this type of laser. The company showed a lower-power TeraDiode powered unit last year, but for this show featured their newly developed laser and system. What got my attention was the edge quality of the cuts in stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium. The cuts in 3/8 inch thick stainless steel were the best I have seen since Japanese companies showed mirror-finish cuts with CO2 lasers in the early 1990s.

Is there a developing challenge to fiber laser cutting? Once the selling prices are comparable (right now, there is a 15% differential), it could happen. I'm told the Mazak system and two others with direct-diode laser power were shown at EuroBlech several weeks ago, and several other integrators are investigating direct-diode cutting. Stay tuned.

The other highlight for me was the appearance of Industry 4.0 (the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing), which was evident everywhere on the floor in many exhibits, integrating all functions of a manufacturing system. But TRUMPF topped them all with a show-stopping presentation of this technology advance. In their exhibit, a limited number of attendees (300 daily) CAD-designed a sheet metal model of a Jeep, customized it, and returned later to collect a laser-cut, -welded, and -marked model fabricated for them on the machines in the TRUMPF exhibit—a powerful and instructive example of the newest innovation in manufacturing.

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