CHICAGO -- Laser machining, rapid prototyping, optical inspection and light-based metrology found their niches among the tens of thousands of exhibits at the International Manufacturing Technology Show, IMTS '96, Sept. 4 through 12 at McCormick Place.Hosting 38 photonics-related companies, the Laser Pavilion drew attention with its main hall lined with huge laser machining centers, many of which operated as punches and/or taps as well as laser cutters. Industry experts indicated a trend toward these multiapplication machines because in job shops, where space is limited, one such machine can take the place of three that might otherwise be required.Positive figuresAt a breakfast meeting during the opening week of the show, the Association for Manufacturing Technology's Laser Systems Product Group released industrial market figures for the first half of 1996, indicating growth in the industry. Shipments by the 41 members of the group's statistical program totaled $225.6 million ($173 million of that in the US), up 34 percent from midyear 1995.The statistics showed that cutting applications remain the largest source of sales activity, accounting for 57 percent of all shipments. Laser marking accounted for 16 percent. Complete details of the group's statistical analyses are available only to group members, who must submit confidential quarterly reports of their own sales to be included in the survey.Among the top products introduced at IMTS '96 were:The Versastation XYZ, a three-axis laser marking system from General Scanning's Laser Systems Div. in Arlington, Mass. The system's novel Class 1 enclosure and door system enables integration into automation systems. New integrated technologies from 3D Systems Corp. of Valencia, Calif., that allow users to create prototype parts and polymer- or steel-based injection molding tools quickly and without the usual tooling costs. Slab CO2 lasers, which appeared all around the Laser Pavilion. Rofin-Sinar of Plymouth, Mich.; C. Behrens Machinery Co. of Danvers, Mass.; and ESAB L-TEC Cutting Systems of Florence, S.C., demonstrated new combination laser/conventional machining systems based on Rofin-Sinar's latest slab CO2 laser. Convergent Energy of Sturbridge, Mass., displayed a machining center based on the Diamond slab CO2 laser from Coherent Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. Some benefits of slab technology are high power and good beam quality in a smaller package.