IMTS: The History of Inspiring Innovation

When it comes to discovering concepts that transform organizations, the history of IMTS encapsulates the history of manufacturing breakthroughs.

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Throughout the years, a mere awareness of current technology hasn’t been enough for industrial leaders. The manufacturing and design engineers, corporate managers, shop owners and production managers that stay ahead of the competition do so because they hone in on the latest trends, peer over the horizon and seek new ideas that boost sustainability, enable flexible automation, increase precision, incorporate digital manufacturing and capitalize on new material developments.

When it comes to discovering concepts that transform organizations, the history of IMTS (the International Manufacturing Technology Show) encapsulates the history of manufacturing breakthroughs.

A Pattern of Invention and Introduction

IMTS is the best-known activity of AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, which represents and promotes the interests of manufacturing machinery, equipment and technology. Originally founded as the National Machine Tool Builders’ Association (NMTBA) in 1902, its first show was in 1927. The original and sole commitment of the first National Machine Tool Builders’ Exposition, as it was called then, was to bring new technology to the market and demonstrate the importance of manufacturing technology—present and future.

At IMTS 1929, some 40 or more exhibitors demonstrated early application of tungsten-carbide tools. According to the International Tungsten Industry Association’s web site, “At this time, no one, even the most optimistic, could imagine the enormous breakthrough for this material in the tooling industry.”

American Machinist magazine reported on the show in its October 10, 1929, edition, writing that, “The second National Machine Tool Builders’ Exposition attracted a record-breaking attendance of over 25,000 engineers, executives and production men from practically every type of metalworking industry in the country. In addition, there was a good representation from several of the foreign industrial countries, notably England, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia.”

Unfavorable business conditions delayed the next show until September 1935, when a forward to the show program noted that, “The Machine Tool Show that you are visiting is not alone the greatest exposition of machine tools ever presented in this country but is also, so far as can be determined, the largest single-industry exposition ever held anywhere.”

Think Pink

For the first post-World War II show in 1947, IMTS moved to Chicago because it had the largest amount of potential exhibit space and the best facilities for visitors. 

IMTS 1947 required all machines to be painted the same shade of “machine tool gray.” Writing to IMTS years later, a show visitor recalled that Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. (later Cincinnati Milacron) capitalized on this fact when it introduced a bright pink cutting fluid and offered it to all the exhibitors. The now-ubiquitous Cimcool was a breakthrough at the time because it was the first synthetic fluid to combine the cooling capacity of water with the lubricity of oils. Thus, higher speeds and better tool life became immediately possible. That’s viral marketing, circa 1947, as well as the history of IMTS.

Changing the Concept of Production

Attendees of the 1955 show saw shades of the future when Monarch Machine Tool demonstrated a numerical control (NC) lathe, as chronicled in Cutting Tool Engineering magazine’s 50th-anniversary edition. What started with a few NC machines driven by punch cards or paper tape became a revolution by IMTS 1960.

“This is a basic development, for it changes the whole concept of present-day production. Rate of production and accuracy are being built into the machine itself,” said Alan C. Mattison, President of the National Machine Tool Builders’ Association.

By 1960, 5 percent of the machine tools on display at the National Machine Tool Show were equipped with numeric control; by the 1965 show, most of the manufacturers exhibited some numerical control equipment. Among notable firsts at IMTS 1960, the Sheffield subsidiary of Bendix displayed the first Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM) in the North American market after establishing exclusive rights to sell Ferranti CMMs.

Exhibiting at IMTS 1960 constituted a newsworthy occasion for local firms. The Milwaukee Sentinel’s August 30, 1960, paper noted that “three Milwaukee [companies] will be among the 123 machine tool manufacturers from 16 states participating in the 1960 Machine Tool Exposition.” The report continued, noting that “more than 1,000 machines will be in daily operation. The combined offering is expected to attract some 125,000 persons.”

A “Barnum & Bailey” Industrial Extravaganza

In addition to the IMTS 1960, 1965 and 1970 shows held in Chicago’s International Amphitheater, concurrent shows included the Production Engineering Show at Navy Pier and the International Coliseum Machinery Show. Tooling & Production magazine described the three shows as generating “the kind of excitement associated with the impending arrival of one of Barnum & Bailey’s three-ring extravaganzas.”

The Rockford (Illinois) Register Star’s September 20, 1970, edition reported that “the 1970 Machine Tool Show would be characterized by widespread application of the computer to machine tools. One company plans to use a computer at Navy Pier to control several machines miles away at the International Amphitheater.”

After the show, the same paper delivered the following post-show report: “The age of the computer in manufacturing is upon us. It will become increasingly tough to compete in production of goods, either on a small or mass scale, with equipment lacking the efficiencies of computerization and numerical control. By contrast, production equipment demonstrated in the previous Machine Tool Show in 1965, especially with numerical control, seems in retrospect somewhat primitive.”

Change and Growth: the 1970s and 1980s

The pace of technological change noted by the Rockford newspaper ushered in a number of show firsts, including the first show with international exhibitors, the first show with non-NMTBA members, the first show to utilize the facilities of McCormick Place and the first show on a two-year cycle. With all of these changes, the event could only be called the first bi-annual 1972 International Machine Tool Show.

Expansion continued, and by the 1980s the show included a growing presence of international firms. After General Numeric began to sell FANUC’s Japanese control systems, the firm’s controls were displayed on about twice as many machine tools as General Electric’s or Allen-Bradley’s (as noted in the book Sources of Industrial Leadership). An estimated 7,000 visitors from overseas spent an average of three days at the show: a statistic that holds true today.

Automation and robots are omnipresent now, but they were big news at IMTS 1984. “I’m looking at robotics for plant applications, such as material handling or painting,” said Brian Westfall, a manufacturing engineer for the Trane Co. of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in an article for the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper.

By 1986, expansion work at the McCormick Place complex enabled the entire exposition to be in one place for the first time, greatly enhancing the visitor experience. Gear Technology’s July/August 1986 show preview issue reported that “Similar product lines will be grouped together to enable visitors to more easily locate the types of products which are of interest to them.”

Today, IMTS offers 10 technology Pavilions, which include the new Additive Manufacturing Pavilion, as well as those for Abrasive Machining/Sawing/Finishing; Controls & CAD-CAM; EDM; Gear Generation; Fabricating/Laser; Machine Components/Cleaning/Environmental; Metal Cutting; Quality Assurance; and Tooling & Workholding Systems. The MyShow Planner tool, available at imts.com, assists visitors in sorting through exhibition categories and developing a map to make a show visit highly efficient.

After a decade of overseas equipment manufacturers generating much of the excitement, IMTS 1988 witnessed an American resurgence with the introduction of the Haas VF-1 vertical machining center.

“Haas Automation was the first American machine tool company to build standard CNC machine tools and openly publish the price list. Haas also began focusing on the neglected job shop market, offering very short delivery times, superior parts and service, and lower costs,” reported Tooling & Production.

An Official Name Change

In 1990, AMT changed the official name of the show to the International Manufacturing Technology Show, reflecting an ever-changing and broader manufacturing industry. Throughout the decade, significant technical breakthroughs highlighted show after show. Giddings & Lewis’ Variax, a machine tool using radical hexapod-design technology, stole the spotlight at IMTS 1994. A short two years later, the ballscrew would give way to magnetics, as linear motors in a horizontal machining center were able to reach an axis travel speed of 3,000 inches per minute and provide an acceleration force as high as 1.5 G.

“We’re at the beginning of linear motor technology. There’s nothing mechanical. It’s all magnetic,” said Jeffrey R. Porter, general manager of high-velocity technology for Ingersoll Milling Machine Co. in the September 4, 1996, issue of the Chicago Tribune.

In its IMTS 1998 show report, Tooling & Production wrote about another new trend: software. “Faster, easier, more powerful, make it open, keep it simple. Users have been requesting this, and software makers are answering. Everything was on display—ranging from CNCs, DNCs and PC-based controls, to highlights of the system’s open architecture, real-time communications, control packages, interactive communications, ease-of-use and conversational design.”

Machine-to-Machine Communication

The pace of technology continues to advance exponentially. IMTS 2000 started a new millennium and saw imts.com increase its web traffic by more than 400 percent. Yet by IMTS 2002, the dot-com bubble had burst, creating the worst manufacturing economy in history.

By 2004, the industry had righted itself, and IMTS grew with the innovative Emerging Technology Center. Originally created in partnership with GE FANUC Automation, the center presented “technologies of the future” from leading universities and government research labs. In 2008, the highly-attended center featured the first demonstration of MTConnect, an open software protocol for networking machines and retrieving process information from any web-enabled user connected to the network. On the show floor, MAG, Mori Seiki, Okuma and Mazak had 60 to 70 machines tied to the Emerging Technology Center demonstration at any given moment.

AMT actually took a direct role in developing MTConnect. The protocol began as a concept at AMT’s annual meeting in 2006, and AMT funded research to create a working protocol that is now an industry standard.

Additive Manufacturing

IMTS exhibitors had hinted at the potential of additive manufacturing, offering trinkets like key chains as booth giveaways. To prove its real manufacturing value, IMTS embarked on the most audacious publicity stunt since pink cutting fluid: the creation of a working automobile.

IMTS collaborated with Local Motors, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Inc. to 3D print and assemble the first-ever electric car live and on site during the six days of IMTS. On Saturday, September 13, Jay Rogers (CEO and Co-Founder, Local Motors) and Douglas Woods (President, AMT) drove out of IMTS 2014 in the newly finished “Strati” vehicle. For the IMTS 2016 show, visitors will be able to register and drive a Strati vehicle at a test track in the North Building.

Still the Greatest Industrial Show on Earth

Eighty-nine years after the first show, IMTS 2016 retains its status as the world’s premier industrial manufacturing technology event, with more than 2,000 exhibitors occupying 1.3 million square feet. An estimated 125,000 visitors will attend.

Production Machining Editor-in-Chief Chris Koepfer, who attended his first IMTS in 1980, summarizes the benefits of attending the show: “One of the beauties of manufacturing is that there are many ways to solve a given problem. The technology is available to everyone—it’s democratic. However, the way technology is applied individually is often what separates successful businesses. … For metalworking manufacturers, there is no better place to be this September than visiting IMTS to take a look at the future.”

IMTS 2016 also includes five co-located shows from Hanover Fairs, USA: Industrial Automation North America; Motion, Drive & Automation North America; Surface Technology North America; ComVac North America; and Industrial Supply North America.

From an era discovering carbide tools to one embracing the Industrial Internet of Things, manufacturing history happens at IMTS. Leaders know that the difference between survival and success is the difference between accidental discovery and planning for success. Spending three days at IMTS can produce more success than six months of research or attending open houses.

AMT President Douglas Woods neatly summarizes the benefits of the show: “IMTS showcases the most current manufacturing solutions while embracing emerging technologies. Spending three days at the show enables business leaders to look into the future and envision what might be possible. If the history of IMTS has taught us anything, it’s that tomorrow’s most successful manufacturers are also the most forward-thinking.”

Visit imts.com/register to sign up and imts.com/travel for visitor housing information; sign up for the IMTS Insider eNewsletter to receive all things IMTS.

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Slideshow: Trends and Technology at IMTS 2016

The size and scope of a show like IMTS makes it impossible to cover everything of interest, but here's a taste of the technology and trends we were taking note of this year.