The Top Five, Of Course

So the question is “How was the show?” and the answer is “Don’t know.”

The show, of course, is Glassbuild America (GBA), which was held in Atlanta last week. The “Don’t know” is because tradition says you never really know the success of a trade show until weeks, maybe months, after it’s occurred.

A view of the floor from GlassBuild 2021

COVID, of course, blew tradition away. Nothing was usual about this year’s show, from the temperature checks before entry to the lack of usual services at the venue and hotels.

It was, of course, a very memorable event. How much of a success you deemed the show depended on where your expectations were. Many exhibitors told me they had very low expectations for attendance and business transactions, but they were pleasantly surprised by both. Other non-exhibitors walked the floor saying they were glad they pulled out and it would not have been worth their while to exhibit. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Attendees, of course, were there to do business. You didn’t come unless you had business to do, and that’s the thing—this industry has business to do. That didn’t stop during the pandemic, and it doesn’t stop now. So with that in mind, here are my top five trends from GBA ‘21:

Machinery takes center stage at GlassBuild in Atlanta.

Automation Advances: As it has for the past decade, the efficacy and capabilities of automated machinery continue to advance. Our scarcity of workers has led to an ever-increasing demand for highly automated machinery. As one exhibitor told me, “An insulating line can’t get COVID, it doesn’t call in sick, and it will never get a new job. Buying a new line is like getting a group of employees for life.” Most equipment at the show was pre-sold, and some got stuck in shipping queues, but videos and brochures bridged the gap.

Soft Landing for Software: Not since the early 2000s has software and the hardware it drives been so prevalent. Twenty years ago, the Internet of Things (IoT) came to glass and metal machinery in a big way. This year, we saw more of that, but the biggest growth leap came in glass-related business management software—for contract glaziers, fabricators, larger retailers, and more.

Strategies to Employ, Literally: There was a laser focus on attracting and retaining talent at every level, from management to factory workers. I talked to managers of companies with less than 100 employees who were unhappy that the new vaccine mandate exempted them. Other managers of companies with more than 100 employees were scared it would lead to a mass exodus by employees. Geography and demographics played a role.

COVID in Charge: “It’s nearly impossible to plan right now while COVID is in charge,” offered a booth visitor as an idle comment which struck me as right. Most of the senior managers with whom I discussed the future had at least three scenarios for growth and action. They were all based on the pandemic conditions we are dealing with at the time. I can’t tell you how many people started discussing their plans by saying, “If COVID is gone by then,” then detailing a scenario. This was usually followed by “And if COVID is an issue,” and then an entirely different scenario.

Keeping Us Up at Night: There was consistent agreement about the issues causing the biggest worries for industry owners. The decreased availability of products and the precarious nature of the supply chain topped the list of concerns that keep sleep away. Delays in shipping and freight costs were also worrisome, as was the lack of employees (see #3 above). But it was the “I” word—inflation—that crept into many conversations that caused the most fear.

Handling/lifting equipment on the show floor at GlassBuild 2021.

It’s hard, of course, to produce a live trade show during COVID. I know because our staff has done it twice this year already. Every measure you see, even down to the simplest, requires planning with a COVID overlay. There were a few valid criticisms, mostly around mask enforcement, but that is also difficult to navigate.

In the end, though, the best part was just having everyone together doing business and planning for the future. Of course.