Trade shows can be microcosms of the industries they represent. With that in mind, consider the fact that there once was once a trade show in Chicago called National Manufacturing Week. During its heyday, it took place in the cavernous McCormick Place exposition center. Vibrant and full of energy, NMW used to take up much of the center’s 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space.

To some degree, NMW always reflected the health of industries from which it drew exhibitors and attendees. So it was no surprise that with the shuttering of 40,000 American factories since 1990, NMW also began to shrink. Attendance at trade shows of all sorts has declined over the years, but NMW’s fall-off has been stunning. The colocated shows that made up the event once occupied three separate exhibition halls. They eventually shriveled to the point where everything could easily fit in one hall. Organizers at last decided to move into a smaller facility in a Chicago suburb. The new digs are about one-third the size of the show’s former home.

That brings us to this year’s gathering, which concluded late last month. It no longer bears the National Manufacturing Week moniker. That seems to be too grand a term for what takes place in its exhibit halls and meeting rooms these days. Though economists insist the U.S. is no longer in a recession, you wouldn’t know it from the feel of the booths and the demeanor of the people in them. Despite being housed in a less-spacious venue, the show had a lot of empty spots around its edges, screened off behind curtains. All in all, it gave the impression of a person draped in an overcoat a couple sizes too large.

That said, there are a few niches in manufacturing which seem to be doing OK. Companies engaged in defense industries and areas related to energy efficiency all seem busy and upbeat. Makers of food-packaging equipment aren’t doing poorly at all. But generally, enthusiasm and levity were in short supply among people manning booths and wandering the aisles. As I walked around I couldn’t help thinking the faces and expressions in the crowd were like those of a football team behind by five touchdowns late in the fourth quarter: They looked resigned to an unpleasant situation.

We encountered a few individuals whose employers were still going through layoffs. One poor soul confided he wasn’t sure who among his team would still have a desk after the show. More commonly, though, booth personnel would point to hopeful signs of a turnaround in business. Some were seeing an uptick in RFQs, more traffic on company Web sites, and other foreshadowings of better times. But most admitted the best they could say was that their businesses had stabilized. They are waiting anxiously for an improvement in orders.

At Machine Design, we have our own economic indicator of sorts. Every so often, one unfortunate engineer who sends us a manuscript for publication gets laid off between the time the draft arrives and when it is published. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence. But in the last 12 months, it’s happened to us twice.

Let’s hope by the time next year’s event in Chicago rolls around, problems like these are just unpleasant memories. Trade-show organizers this year had the thankless task of trying to excite attendees who had little to be enthusiastic about. We would all be better off if their job was a bit easier in 2010.

— Leland Teschler, Editor