With a cloud hanging over the show from concerns about the spread of COVID-19, CONEXPO-CON/AGG still managed to bring well over 100,000 attendees to Las Vegas. But the triennial equipment trade show itself was cut short due to virus concerns, ending a day early on March 13.

[For ENR’s latest coverage of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here]

Show organizers with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers announced there were more than 130,000 registrations for the show, with cancellations from international attendees at less than 1%. But the show, while not deserted, appeared less crowded than the 2017 CONEXPO exhibition, which recorded more than 128,000 attendees. Several major exhibitors chose to stay away, including Volvo Construction Equipment, Mack Trucks and software vendor Procore.

While some manufacturers and attendees steered clear, crowds still thronged to the sprawling showgrounds, with a clear appetite for new equipment amid a strong construction season. But worries over the virus slowly spread, and manufacturers sought to calm attendees’ fears about equipment deliveries. 

Initial concerns about the virus were voiced by heavy equipment managers focused on how a slowdown in China would disrupt manufacturers’ supply lines. But those issues seem to have been mostly worked out, with some Chinese factories coming back online this month. China-based equipment manufacturer LiuGong told ENR it had not seen any significant impact on its production due to coronavirus. 

Jim Umpleby, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, told reporters that coronavirus had not resulted in significant disruptions so far to the company’s logistics chain. He said for the most part, facilities in China are back up and running. “We are monitoring it very closely,” he said of the coronavirus. “We are following the guidelines from the CDC, WHO and local governments.”

The larger issue may not be a disruption in shipping from China, but delays or even halts in construction activity in major markets around the world.

Chris Sleight, managing director for U.K.-based equipment market analyst Off-Highway Research, notes if a virus-related slowdown is coming, it’s arriving just as the global equipment market has peaked. “2019 was another good year. In our measure of the market, which is specific machine types, about 1.1 million machines sold worldwide, which was down just 1% or 2% from 2018, so basically the second-highest volume on record,” says Sleight.

Off-Highway Research focuses primarily on sales of earthmoving equipment and cranes, which it uses to track economic activity in key markets around the world. Sleight says the good times for equipment sales have lasted longer than he and some other industry analysts had previously forecast, and the impact from COVID-19 may only be one of many factors leading to a cooling-off period.

“Obviously the market has been in a good place, globally and in general, and most individual markets have kind of reached a peak. So we felt that even without coronavirus that the top of the cycle had been reached,” he tells ENR.

“It’s very clear now North America, Europe and China did peak last year. We were always going to see a downturn this year, and it just kind of depends on what coronavirus does to that,” says Sleight. “I think pre-coronavirus we would have said maybe the cyclical downturn [in global equipment sales] would be 10%. Right now I don’t know what it will be, but it will probably be more than 10%.”

Relaunches and Fresh Iron

Caterpillar has been condensing its heavy equipment offerings in recent years, renumbering models and tightening up its lineups. CONEXPO was a chance to show off the new lines, with seven excavators and five backhoes as the centerpiece of its booth.

Building on its next-generation excavator line first introduced two years ago, the seven new models include three small excavators in the 13-ton to 15-ton range as well as two wheeled excavators. The 20-ton Cat 325 compact radius excavator is intended for tight work areas, including on roadways. The Cat 395 is the largest of the pack, a production machine with the same hydrostatic swing circuit as on Cat’s massive mining shovels. The Cat 420 XE backhoe boasts high-tech features as standard options, including electronic loader controls with programmable loader kickout and return-to-dig function.

Case Construction Equipment took the occasion of CONEXPO to unveil its electric-powered backhoe loader, known as Project Zeus. The 580 E is built on the same platform as CASE CE’s diesel-powered backhoe loaders and is able to work a full shift on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery bank. The backhoe can fully recharge in eight hours and boasts the same bucket breakout force as its diesel-powered counterpart, according to a CASE CE representative.

John Deere introduced its SmartGrade 333G Compact Track Loader at CONEXPO. It is Deere’s first compact machine that features its proprietary SmartGrade grade-control system. The Moline, Ill.-based company also revealed a new scraper earthmoving productivity system that offers operators real-time tracking of the volume of material in its scrapers via an in-cab monitor.

Amid the forest of tower cranes in CONEXPO’s festival lot, German-based crane maker WOLFFKRAN had its 166-B slewing tower crane set up. Already available in Europe, the company thinks the crane’s small footprint would be a good fit for construction in busy U.S. metro areas.

“Customers really like how quickly they can put up this crane,” says Todd Yager, president of WOLFFKRAN’s growing U.S. operation. Building out the company’s U.S. presence has taken time, but Yager says the interest level at the show was strong despite subdued crowds. “This has been a good week for us.”

By Jeff Rubenstone in Las Vegas, with Scott Blair, Aileen Cho, Jeff Yoders