Every January, Stone World presents its annual Fabricator Market Forecast, where hundreds of stone fabrication professionals from around the country present their expectations for the coming year as well as their feelings for the long-term. This study also asks fabricators how they plan to spend their money for the coming year, with specific investments and actual dollar amounts cited.

Up until 2007 or so, this survey had served as an affirmation of the explosive growth and long-term success of the North American stone industry. Year after year, the results were overwhelmingly positive, and fabricators proudly outlined their plans for investments in machinery, stock, personnel, showrooms and other improvements. More importantly, they followed through on these plans.

Of course, the last few years have not been nearly as positive. The fabricators we polled said that conditions were even worse than they expected, and they were reporting significant declines in business, layoffs and a generally gloomy outlook for the future. And not surprisingly, investment plans ground to a screeching halt.

This year, however, the fabricators we polled were more positive than they have been in years. While the full report on page 32 is a must-read - for fabricators as well as anyone else in the stone industry - the following is a brief summary of the results:

• 53% of fabricators polled said the stone market will increase in 2011; 37.4% said it would stay the same; only 9.6% said there would be further declines. This is a fair bit more optimistic than last year, when only 45% expected growth, and 15% expected further declines.

• Looking five to 10 years down the road, 84.3% said the stone market will increase. Another 13% said it would stay the same, and only 2.6% said it would decline. These numbers are slightly better than last year, when 6% expected a long-term decline.

• More than half of the respondents (52.2%) said that they would be investing in equipment in 2011.

Specific investment plans included the following:

• 13% of respondents said they would buy a CNC in 2011 - with a mean value of $200,000

• 28.7% said they would be investing in material handling equipment (mean value = $20,000)

• 18.3% said they would be investing in polishers (mean value = $30,700)

• 10% said they would be buying bridge saws (mean value = $152,000)

• 12.2% said they would be investing in air/water treatment (mean value = $18,000)

• 10.4% said they would be investing in digital/electronic templating (mean value = $20,800)

The fabricators who participated in the Stone World survey gave a range of reasons for their optimism - from general improvement of the economy to increased remodeling work - and their specific comments can be found in the full-length report. Also of note, they pointed to specific improvement last year. According to the survey, 30.4% of fabricators saw their business improve during 2010, and another 33.0% said that business held steady. For comparison, only 19% of those polled at the end of 2009 said that business had increased for the year.

For a lot of us, the recovery has been a slow and tedious process - much slower than the precipitous fall of the past few years. But even though it is still a bit faint, there is clearly a light at the end of the tunnel.