Predicting future economic conditions is a task that often seems a curious blend of economic theory, statistical analysis, and old-fashioned voodoo. One of the most commonly asked questions during plant visits or at trade shows during the last year may be "Do you see things picking up soon?" It is a question that embodies both hope and uncertainty, but conceals a solution that is confoundingly complex. Fortunately, time spent at a trade show can provide a glimpse of the answer.

Whether the opinions on economic forecasting offered at trade shows represent fact of self-fulfilling prophesy, they do provide a fairly reliable sampling of the industry for a given time period. Sometimes, information gleaned from a show in one market can shed light on activities in another market. For example, during a brief visit to the recent Medical Design & Manufacturing East Conference and Exhibition (June 2-4, 2003, Jacob Javits Center, New York, NY), a surprising number of RF/microwave companies could be found among the suppliers of contract manufacturing, coatings, intravenous (IV) components, molding and packaging services, sterilization equipment, and tubing. Some of these companies, such as W.L. Gore (Newark, DE), have been firmly entrenched in the medical equipment industry as long as they have supplied the microwave industry.

Other companies, such as Heraeus (Chandler, AZ), Hypertronics Corp. (Hudson, MA), LEMO USA (Rohnert Park, CA), and Precision Photo-Fab (Buffalo, NY) were there to explore business prospects for their specialties. In all cases, weakening of their traditional markets, largely in electronic materials and connectors, had led them to a quest for new opportunities.

Certainly, a focused show such as the Microwave Theory & Techniques Symposium (MTT-S, June 8-13, 2003, Philadelphia Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA), provides a "safe" and predictable venue for making business contacts. But such a show tends to bring together traditional players in traditional markets, and not the exploratory market "probing" that takes place at a show like MDM East, or an automotive show, or a homeland security event.

Military markets are certainly a large part of the microwave industry's tradition. But these markets have long been ignored by major trade shows. The Military Electronics Show (MES, Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore, MD, September 16-17, 2003, www.mes2003.com) is an attempt to help microwave companies rediscover markets in the military that may strengthen their economic health. And during a time when this industry is in need of new opportunities, perhaps those old opportunities might do just as well.