I should have known something was in the wind (pardon the unintentional pun on Chicago's sobriquet) as I was walking down that city's Magnificent Mile of high-end chain stores and specialty shops last November. It was the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving and the crowds of shoppers seemed heavier than I remembered from past visits—ILS is in Chicago every odd year for Fabtech International. Suddenly my companions and I came upon a crowd of people mobbing the front doors of a specialty clothing shop. Two store security people were working to move people into line behind a roped-off section of the broad sidewalk, reminiscent of the lines in front of a rock club.
We thought there might be a celebrity signing taking place so we continued to stroll down fabled North Michigan Avenue. In the next block we came across a repeat of this episode in front of a Crate and Barrel store where a Chicago fireman was blocking the door to that establishment. I finally caught on; shopping crowds were larger than the stores' maximum capacity so they were forced to only allow entrants when certain numbers had exited. Over the years I have marveled at the numbers of weekend shoppers on Michigan Avenue but I have never seen the likes of this.
Segue to the following Monday when ILS Associate Editor, Laureen Belleville, and I took a lunch break after a busy morning visiting laser product exhibitors at Fabtech. We're sitting in a mezzanine-located cafeteria that overlooks the exhibit floor at McCormick Place's South Hall. Below us are the large laser system exhibits of TRUMPF, Mazak, and Amada. On the right are impressive displays by Mitsubishi, Prima, and Bystronic. To the left a laser tube cutter by BLM Group. All are packed with interested fabricators surrounding company sales people as laser systems are cutting flat, three-dimensional, and tubing products. Everywhere we look we see activity like ants converging on a new food source.
It's a sight I hadn't expected. Thinking back to the previous Saturday it occurred to me that there was a new feeling in Chicago and, by inference, the mid-West and possibly beyond—optimism and a belief that the economy had turned and it was now all right to start spending some money. On Michigan Avenue for Christmas presents, at McCormick for laser systems.
By the show's close I had managed to talk with the upper management of most of the 60 plus companies showing laser-related products. Their general consensus: Fabtech was a success, business prospects had turned up, orders were being written (all the show machines bore sold signs), and prospects for 2004 looked very good.
At the ILS booth my associates and I logged in a record number of new subscribers. The buying mood was high among those we spoke with. We heard that fourth-quarter business at many job shops was high and early 2004 business looked solid. Several were at Fabtech to buy new laser systems.
I left Chicago feeling very good about the turn in the laser industry's business. In my October column I said, "I will be delighted to report that Fabtech was the precursor to the return to health of the industrial laser cutting business in the U.S." Some months will pass before I can confirm the strong impression gained at Fabtech, but I sense a positive change spreading across the industrial marketplace and I like what I am seeing. Positive news is everywhere and one can only start the year with good feelings.
A word of congratulations to the companies selling laser products, especially the system suppliers, that gambled early last year by investing serious money, during a tight financial period, to exhibit in Chicago in November. It looks like you were the smart ones.
David A. Belforte