Each year, at the beginning of December, I receive the results of the annual "Fabricator Market Forecast," a survey conducted by BNP Media (Stone World's parent company) that is sent to thousands of fabricators across the U.S. Up until five years ago, this survey was more or less a reaffirmation that our industry was kicking some serious tail. Fabricators eagerly reported their success of the previous year, and they outlined all of the investmentsthey planned to make in the coming year. As someone who depends on the success of the stone industry to make a living, these surveys were truly a joy to cover.

And then everything stopped. We already know what happened, and how long it has lasted, so I don't need to get into the details. For several years, the surveys confirmed what was apparently obvious -- business for stone fabricators was dropping at an incredible rate, and with some exceptions, most companies weren't doing any major investing in equipment. At the end of 2011, however, that trend appeared to be changing, as more than half of the fabricators polled said they would be investing in equipment in 2012. A

nd some of these shops were planning big-ticket purchases, like CNCs and bridge saw/waterjets. Based on everything I have learned over 2012, however, it seems that while some of these investments actually took place, it was by no means a banner year for the machinery suppliers. In our latest survey, which is linked below in this E-Newsletter, fabricators again expressed optimism, with 51% of those polled saying that they plan to invest in machinery in 2013. This year, I think that more of them will actually go through with it, and this opinion is based on sheer numbers.

At the end of 2011, 56% of the fabricators we polled said that business had improved that year, and 51% were calling for continuedgrowth in 2012. In our latest poll, a similar number of fabricators said that business grew in 2012 (53%), but there was a more positive outlook for 2013, with 68% of fabricators expecting growth this year. Actual business inquiries were the reason for much of the optimism, as people pointed to their current workload as well as a general increase in sales activity. For example, one fabricator cited "increased projects to bid and increased contracts received," while others pointed to increased showroom traffic, job referrals and inquires.

Some of the more intriguing investment plans were as follows:

• A total of 18% of those polled said they would be purchasing a new bridge saw in 2013, and they expected to spend a mean total of $80,000, which would make sense considering the increasing sophistication of bridge saws in today's marketplace.

• Around one in eight fabricators (12%) said they would be purchasing CNC stoneworking centers in 2013.

• As shop safety is becoming an increasing focus for fabricators, more poll respondents said they would be investing in material handling and transportation equipment than ever before (42%), with a mean dollar amount of $40,433 cited.

• Plans to invest in management software (16%) and digital/electronic templating technology (13%) are also on the rise as fabricators become more tech savvy.

Now, will the fabricators actually go through with these investments like they say? I could ask the "Magic 8-Ball" sitting on my desk, but I recall that it said the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, and that didn't happen, so I will make my prediction based on more reliable evidence. It seems to me that the fabricators taking part in this latest survey have a higher degree of optimism than we have seen in years, with specific reasons for their positive outlook, and many of the shop owners I have spoken with are telling me about planned investments. So with this in mind, I would think that we will indeed see more investment in equipment this year. Perhaps the vibe at StonExpo/Marmomacc Americas will give us some perspective later this month.

Stay tuned.