The triennial CONEXPO-CON/AGG exhibition is thought to be the largest construction event of the year and the largest trade show in the Western Hemisphere. This year’s show, scheduled for March 22-26 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, already is booking up its 2.2 million square feet.

Last time the big show came to Vegas, in 2008, the industry and economy were in a much different place. Then, manufacturers couldn’t crank out the machines fast enough. The show set all-time records for attendance and exhibits, with more than 144,000 people perusing nearly 2.3 million sq ft. Soon after, investment bank Lehman Bros. would collapse, ushering the economy into a recession.

While firms have been reporting a slow recovery in 2011, this year’s show is down by only 16% to 120,000 visitors, which has show officials optimistic. “It’s a healthy, strong number,” says Megan Tanel, vice president of events for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the Milwaukee-based show organizer.

Though total attendance is likely to be down, vendors are hoping to see higher-caliber buyers. Firms are opting to send more decision-makers and fewer tire-kickers to Vegas. “The show is already 4% ahead for the president and VP level,” explains Tanel. “You’re not just getting the sales-and-marketing person.”

That means the seminars may see some empty chairs, but the exhibit halls should be plenty busy. “We want to learn about new products and technologies and new offerings in general—and kind of learn what we don’t know,” says Mike Gibbons, who manages Chicago-based Walsh Construction’s fleet of about 4,000 trucks, pavers, cranes and other gear.

International attendance is looking to be up due to what some are calling the “Bauma effect.” Last year’s triennial Bauma show, which rotates with CONEXPO and France’s Intermat in Munich was unreachable by many due to Iceland’s volcanic eruption. However, getting a visa made it tough for some to get to CONEXPO in 2008. Obtaining a U.S. visa may also be a factor this year, AEM says.

Total construction activity is expected to rise this year, by around 8%, after four straight years of declines, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, the parent company of ENR. In terms of capital expenditures, the industry is on track to spend 14% more on heavy equipment this year—at about 96,000 units—than in 2010, says Frank Manfredi, a heavy-equipment analyst in Mundelein, Ill.

“There are apparently some buyers out there,” says Manfredi. “It’s not homebuilders or people associated with homebuilding. It’s people who are participating on what small amount of roadbuilding is going on.” The non-residential and mining sectors also are “fleeting up,” but overall spending remains depressed. Most of the equipment sold last year, Manfredi explains, was due to dealers and rental companies rebuilding their inventories.

Thanks to new tax breaks, companies this year can now expense the full value of capital expenditures put into service between Sept. 9, 2010, and the end of this year in lieu of regular depreciation. But it really is up to equipment users to find projects to put that iron to work. Even at 96,000 units, sales still would be at 1993 levels, Manfredi reports.

What does all this mean for this year’s show? Expect to see a focus on frugality as the industry moves through this critical transition period. Firms are looking for creative ways to stretch their dollars; some of those strategies are listed below in our exclusive guide to CONEXPO 2011.

1. Eyes in the Sky

Essential tool or Big Brother?

Jeff Ciampa, operations manager for Aggregate Industries’ Northeast business, has found an innovative way to cut down paperwork by invoicing by satellite. Ciampa used to process each year by hand 23,000 invoices from truckers who haul materials to his company’s roadbuilding sites. Last year, Ciampa saved nearly a million dollars by putting GPS units on those hired trucks and paying bills according to the work reported by his computer, not the truckers.

“Some embraced it; some didn’t embrace it,” Ciampa says. “But the reality is, they are working for me. It’s a cold new world in terms of how business works, and this economic downturn is forcing this new kind of efficiency.” Amid state and federal budget crunches, Ciampa says he had to look from within to grow profits. The dispatch system, built by HCSS, can cost more than $15,000 to set up, but exact prices depend on the size of the fleet.

GPS also is growing as a way to literally drive machines, not just track them. As with the BIM explosion in buildings, highway engineers are going 3D. Last fall, Brooklyn, Iowa-based contractor Manatts Inc. rebuilt a six-mile stretch of Interstate 35 near Ellsworth using 3D grade controls to run its earthmoving, rock-trimming and paving equipment. In other words, GPS or robotic total stations ran nearly every rig on the job.

Going digital on one machine can run $100,000 but provide a quick payback. “You are saving on the string-line crew and the survey crew,” says Tim Tometich, project manager. “You can implement a change faster and start a job a little faster.” Automated machine controls are installed on only about 10% of the total equipment fleet, experts say. However, vendors like Trimble, Topcon and Leica will be on hand at CONEXPO to show off the latest digital tools. Also, keep an eye on the manufacturers’ booths for more speciality vehicles, such as asphalt milling machines set up with 3D controls.

2. Not Falling on DEF Ears

Clean diesel goes off-road

CONEXPO 2011 will be the place for manufacturers to show how they plan to tackle diesel emissions in the next few years. Now that on-road trucks have phased in tighter tailpipe controls, it’s time for the off-road fleet to clean up its act. The primary strategies to deal with one of diesel’s main problems—nitrogen oxides—are exhaust-gas recirculation, selective-catalytic reduction or a combination of both. EGR is an in-cylinder cleanup; SCR, in addition to fuel, requires an extra fill-up with diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to neutralize NOx in the tailpipe. Contractors aren’t excited about the extra complexity, so manufacturers are keeping the fuel economy in check while making sure the engines perform.

The EPA’s rules for “interim” Tier 4, the latest exhaust standard for off-road vehicles, went into effect in January for engines with 175 horsepower and higher. Starting next year, smaller machines will phase in. The big question is, how will manufacturers squeeze those controls into the compact machines?