Fabtech, the first large-scale manufacturing trade show to return to Chicago’s McCormick Place, convenes in September. To announce its return, Fabtech organizers gathered in June to discuss the economic boost that it brings to the region and the industry.
At the event, Ed Youdell, president and CEO of the Fabricating and Manufacturers Association, said that Fabtech has grown to be one of the 10 largest trade shows in the United States. In 2019, the show contributed a $73 million impact to the city and state while the event created 110,000 hours of work for 4,000 labor workers and contributed $5.3 million to the labor workforce in Chicago. Two years later, the economic impact remains significant, so show organizers also used the reopening event to discuss the new strategies that were implemented to address current health and safety concerns.
Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) in Chicago, kicked off the event, explaining that while McCormick Place was closed, several capital maintenance projects were completed. In terms of health and safety protocols, the entire campus earned the GBAC Star accreditation, which “validates a cleaning company’s cleaning, disinfection and infection prevention program to help its facility customers prepare, respond and recover from biohazards and infectious agents, such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19.” Among other measures, Clark and her team also redesigned the food court areas to accommodate better social distancing and also addressed air quality concerns with the replacement of air filters across the McCormick Place campus.
With the help of the MPEA alongside the five Fabtech partner organizations, a lot of work and planning came together to host such a large event during such unprecedented times. Gary Konarska, the executive director and CEO of the American Welding Society (AWS), one of the five partner organizations, agreed to sit down with the team at Welding Productivity to give a preview of what attendees can expect while also highlighting what the show’s return means for the industry.
Welding Productivity: The cancellation of Fabtech last year was a big blow to the industry. What does its return mean for manufacturers and, specifically, the AWS organization?
Gary Konarska: When we think about the draw around Fabtech, we can see that a big part of it is connecting industry peers together. People go to Fabtech to look at products and
technology, but one of the biggest benefits of going is connecting with people. Think about it: Being able to have a face-to-face conversation about a specific product can be so much more impactful than simply reading information about that product online.
Since things have been opening up, I’ve been attending a lot more face-to-face meetings where people are interacting in an informal and flowing way. One thing I’ve noticed is that during these meetings, people are constantly interrupting each other, which is hard to do during a video call. But they’re not interrupting because they’re rude; they’re interrupting because they’re excited about the conversation, and they’re excited about the ideas they have about the topic and they want to be able to collaborate to help their ideas grow. By finally bringing industry back together, we can be more effective at creating those connections.
WP: Can you give us a brief overview of what attendees can expect from AWS at the show?
Konarska: The multi-dimensional opportunities to learn and grow and connect are among the main attractions of Fabtech, and those opportunities are expanding this year. When you add the expo floor to the learning tracks and the opportunities around that, the show offers so much. The list of keynote speakers is extensive, and they’ll be talking about a wide variety of topics. They will address a huge combination of fabrication technologies, with welding being one of them, where attendees can get a broad view of the manufacturing industry, including key industry drivers drilled down to a microeconomic level.
These keynote speakers – the real-life people behind these stories – are a big draw for Fabtech. People are always looking to hear other people’s stories, including the hardships, trials and tribulations that they went through to build up their businesses before becoming successful.
WP: Will the learning tracks be in-person, or will there be a way for people that cannot travel to Chicago to virtually participate?
Konarska: We have a full in-person welding track on a wide variety of topics, but we’re also hosting additional learning opportunities in a virtual event the following week. The week after
Fabtech, we’re hosting the Professional Program, which was traditionally our in-person learning program. In the past, it had strong international participation, so early in the planning process, we decided to take that completely virtual so that we could guarantee the participation of our international contributors to the event. We’re excited to announce that the virtual program is very full as far as the number of papers that have been submitted and the number of participants that are interested.
WP: What can in-person attendees expect beyond the educational learning tracks that AWS will offer on-site?
Konarska: I’m actually very excited to tell you about a new show feature that we’re debuting this year: the AWS Fusion Lounge. We will have the careers in welding trailer and mobile exhibit inside the exhibit hall, but we will also be creating a collaborative area for people to congregate on their own and enable the famous names in the industry to have a comfortable space where they can meet with their fans and followers.
The Fusion Lounge will be more of a peer-to-peer collaborative area versus an exhibitor-to-customer area. We’ve heard from so many welding influencers that are excited about this collaborative space to relax, recharge and meet with the folks that want to hear their stories.
The Fusion Lounge will also be the area where we’re going to have daily panel discussions, which will be expanded this year with a broader scope of topics and speakers. Given the nature of this year’s show of being more peer-to-peer interactive, we’re excited about this new space.
WP: Fabtech is a huge economic engine that contributes millions of dollars to the city and state. How does AWS contribute to this stimulus and what is AWS forecasting for the 2021 event?
Konarska: Fabtech is administered and hosted by five partner associations. When it comes to the planning and execution of the event, each of those associations owns their technology, so in the case of AWS, the welding technology. When AWS joined the Fabtech show in 2005, it improved the overall value of the show for all show partners, giving the attendee as well as the exhibitor a much broader opportunity for learning and looking at new and different fabricating processes and technologies.
Most facilities have many different fabricating technologies on their shop floors, welding being one of them alongside cutting, forming and bending, and robotics. So now, attendees can see all of these technologies at one venue under one roof. Knowing that, I wouldn’t necessarily say that AWS is providing an individual contribution to the show; I would say that we’re part of the team effort of Fabtech show partners that are working together to contribute to the overall economic growth to the city and state of Illinois.
WP: To address the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the “Big Three” – Lincoln, Miller and ESAB – will not be exhibiting this year. How does that impact AWS and, more broadly, the overall show?
Konarska: While we will thoroughly miss those big three along with any other companies that won’t be exhibiting, we respect the decision that they made in the interest of what was best for their employees and their businesses.
When you look at the brand recognition of the big three, everyone in the welding community knows who they are, but there are so many great products out there that are single-factory manufacturers. This year, they will really get a chance to shine and elevate their positions within the minds of the consumers. I know that those that are planning to exhibit are more excited than they’ve ever been before.
In terms of the big three, we look forward to seeing them in Atlanta in 2022. They see value in Fabtech because they also need to connect with their customers, and they need that platform to introduce new technologies.
In today’s world, people need to look at all of the available options as new innovations emerge, and there’s no better place to compare innovations than at Fabtech. There’s no other show in the United States that gives manufactures the ability to shine next to their competitors, colleagues and friends.