Business was good, attitudes were positive and manufacturers still seemed to have plenty of work, in spite of the sputtering economy.

In today’s uncertain-okay, crazy-economy, generalizations and predictions are often of fleeting value. What appeared certain yesterday may already be irrelevant today. By tomorrow morning, this afternoon’s conventional wisdom may have already been consigned to the dustbin of history. And let’s not even think about our 401Ks!

Which brings us to this year’s Assembly Technology Expo (ATExpo), sponsored in part by ASSEMBLY magazine and held in September at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, adjacent to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Since that time, the stock market has gone into a tailspin the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Credit markets have followed suit, and at press time, the federal government was still trying to figure out how best to engineer a partial nationalization of the country’s banking sector.

Nonetheless, if last fall’s ATExpo is any indication, there is still plenty of reason to hope. John Engler, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers (Washington), is fond of saying that manufacturing serves as the bedrock of the U.S. economy. He has also said in recent months that it is his constituency that will ultimately see the United States through these troubled times-and if exhibitors at ATExpo are any indication, he may very well be right.

Despite the bad news pouring out of the television sets in the bars and hotel lobbies across the street, things in the exhibit hall itself were good. Granted, overall square footage was down slightly, with many companies bringing substantially smaller exhibits than they have in the past. But traffic remained brisk from beginning to end. Not only that, many exhibitors were saying the general interest and the quality of the leads they received were as strong or stronger than they had been in years.

In short, business was good, attitudes were positive, and plenty of manufacturers and suppliers still seemed plenty busy.

“At this year’s show, [we] introduced two new products,” says Robert Damesworth, national sales manager for optical inspection equipment manufacturer Aven Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI). “The customer response was very positive, with well over 100 attendees wanting information. I have attended this show for over 15 years, and this was one of the best times I had.”

“The overall traffic was great,” agrees Tom Bertellotti, regional manager for safety products manufacturer Tapeswitch Corp. (Farmingdale, NY). “It was one of the best attended shows we have been to in the last five years.”

“It’s strange,” said one manufacturer of automated assembly components, who asked that his name not be used. “In spite of all that’s been happening on Wall Street, business is good.”

Among the many innovative new products at this year’s ATExpo was this Light Guide Systems work instruction unit from OPS Solutions.

The Spirit of Innovation

Complementing this attitude was the spirit of innovation that continues to mark each ATExpo-still the largest assembly-only trade show in North America. As in year’s past, this can-do attitude was everywhere, evident across a wide range of technologies and in companies large and small.

At the smaller end of the spectrum, for example, was a nifty company called OPS Solutions (Northville, MI), creator of a new work instructions technology it calls the Light Guide System.

Intended to help assemblers improve quality, traceability and throughput at the same time it decreases training times, the system functions by projecting step-by-step work instructions directly onto a work surface or on parts bins where they can easily be seen. Manual or automatic confirmation that a step has been performed is required before the next step is activated, thereby ensuring correct processing.

In addition to part numbers, processing times for each step are also automatically logged, allowing managers to perform bottleneck analysis, production trending and cycle time reporting.

At the other end of the sales spectrum were companies like dispensing equipment and materials manufacturer Sonderhoff USA Corp. (Elgin, IL), a subsidiary of Sonderhoff GmbH (Cologne, Germany) that was making its ATExpo debut at this year’s show.

Specializing in the sealing and assembly of everything from automotive intake manifolds to electronic relays and plug connectors, Sonderhoff brought a number of items to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, including gasketing, gluing and potting materials, and a variety of dispensing machines, including a large gantry-type system dispensing one of Sonderhoff’s form-in-place materials. The company’s highly visible presence at ATExpo served as yet more evidence that the manufacturing sector, at least, remains committed to growing the economy, come what may.

A number of companies featured products and systems created specifically for the rapidly growing solar panel industry, like this solar panel conveyor from Bosch Rexroth.

Sunny Days

Another area in which many ATExpo exhibitors seemed to see plenty of opportunity was in solar panel manufacturing. This year’s ATExpo included a co-located Green Manufacturing Expo and conference, with exhibitors displaying everything from wind generators to reusable packaging. But the effects of the recent spike in energy costs could be felt everywhere. Granted, at press time benchmark light, sweet crude was trading at around $70 per barrel-down from well over $100 per barrel around the time of the show. But then again it also seemed to be inching back up again, and it’s a pretty safe bet that energy concerns are here to stay.

In terms of specific technologies, one of the most dramatic was a dedicated solar panel conveyor on display at the Bosch Rexroth exhibit. According to Bosch director of marketing services Kevin Gingerich, his company has begun developing lines like the one on display in response to a number of inquiries from solar panel manufacturers making the transition to mass production.

Gingerich notes that currently such systems often have to be custom built, due to the variety of products being manufactured. However, Bosch and its customers are working on standardizing both production equipment and the panels themselves to bring down costs.

Another business sector with eyes on the solar panel market is the robotics industry. Because solar panel manufacturing requires both a great deal of material handling as well as a number of repetitive processing steps that must be precisely and gently executed, it is ideal for the implementation of flexible automation-a point not lost on robot makers.

With this in mind, Fanuc Robotics (Rochester Hills, MI) had a functioning workcell on display loading and unloading randomly oriented solar wafers off a conveyor with the help of a machine vision system.

Another show attendee that has been making inroads this area is Stäubli Corp. (Duncan, SC). The company’s new TX200 PV six-axis robot, for example, is designed specifically for use in photovoltaic applications, with a payload of 130 kilograms.

Finally, as in year’s past, ATExpo featured a fully functioning electronics manufacturing line, sponsored by the Electronics Assembly Suppliers Initiative (EASi) and coordinated by Electronics Manufacturing Solutions Inc. (Indianapolis).

Marking its 13th appearance at ATExpo, this year’s EASi line featured a wide assortment of equipment, including conveyors, rework systems, pick-and-place machines, soldering stations, reflow soldering systems, screwdrivers, optical inspection, robotic point-to-point soldering machines, laser marking and even depanelling and packing workcells. The end result was a working, electronic blackjack game that attendees could take home as a souvenir.

One of the great things about ATExpo is that attendees can see the latest technology firsthand, as opposed to just listening to a sales pitch-and there’s nothing like seeing actual product coming of a real assembly line to know if a set of equipment has the “right stuff.”

Catch This Year's ATExpo Online

If you missed this year’s Assembly Technology Expo, don’t worry. For the first time, ASSEMBLY magazine is providing video coverage of North America’s largest assembly-only event on its ASSEMBLYtv web page.

To access this coverage free of charge, go Featured companies include those involved in robotics, automation, test systems, lean manufacturing, dispensing, sensors and screwdriving. While you’re there, feel free to check out the rest of ASSEMBLYtv, which features videos covering a wide range of assembly technologies, many of them shot on-site in actual assembly plants.