Uncertainty in world construction markets has the heavy-equipment sector posting sideways growth this year, but manufacturers and suppliers are hopeful the worst is behind them.

"The economy is gyrating," admitted Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, at the triennial Bauma equipment expo, held on April 15-21 in Munich. "There's no denying that businesses face challenges right now, particularly in Europe."

One of Bauma's largest exhibitors, Caterpillar, this month booked a first-quarter profit of $880 million on $13.2 billion of sales, an annual decline of 45% and 17%, respectively, and lowered its full-year sales outlook to levels between $57 billion and $61 billion. Still, Oberhelman said construction looks to be on a recovery path: Housing is rebounding in North America, and inventories in China are dropping. "We're seeing continued, very slow growth in the United States, which is good," he said.

The shaky outlook didn't stop a record-breaking crowd from traveling to Bauma, the world's largest trade show, which hosted more than 3,400 vendors and attracted 530,000 visitors, an increase of 26% since the previous show in 2010 and topping 2007's record of 500,000.

"This is very good for our industry in these turbulent times, and it will certainly give it a boost," said Johann Sailer, director of Germany-based hoist maker GEDA and president of the Committee for European Construction Equipment.

Efficient Engines

Fuel-saving technology—motivated by environmental regulations as well as cost concerns—was a core focus of the machinery exhibits. Manufacturers unveiled new clean-diesel engines designed to meet U.S. and European emissions regulations as well as hybrid machines that squeeze more energy out of every drop of diesel.

Taking a cue from the on-road trucking sector, most manufacturers of off-road machinery at Bauma said they would use selective-catalytic reduction (SCR) for their latest clean-diesel engines, which will phase into the market through 2015. Executives at U.K.-based earthmoving-machine maker JCB noted that the fuel savings from SCR will help pay for the 5% to 10% increases in machine prices.

"If we can save them 5% to 10% per year and they use the machine for three years, it will help offset the up-front cost," said Tim Burnhope, JCB's chief innovation and growth officer.