There was, to put it lightly, a lot to see at IMTS. Modern Machine Shop sent its whole editorial staff, and we still didn’t see it all. We’re still sorting through the many distinctive products and technologies we encountered there, and planning for the various articles across many issues that will no doubt flow out of the connections and discoveries we made at this show. What follows makes no reference to any of those products or technologies.
Instead, what follows is something much more gut-level and basic. After a week at the show, with every day full of conversations with exhibitors and attendees, here are my impressions of IMTS 2010 as a whole:
1. Great attendance
In absolute terms, attendee registration was lower than 2008's show. But in relative terms, the attendance was great. By “relative,” I mean relative to my own sense of just how light the show this year might have been. Even moderate attendance was not guaranteed—shops with lean staffing that were not expecting to buy new equipment soon might have chosen not to go. However, attendance proved to be not just brisk, but bustling. Halls were often crowded. What's more, the crowds were optimistic. My sense is that the typical attendee this year expected his shop to see not gangbusters activity, but certainly a confident level of business activity for the foreseeable future.
2. Did not miss what was missing
The vast majority of regular exhibitors to IMTS had scaled-back exhibits this year. They did the best they could with budgets that had been dealt a blow by the setback that beset the world almost immediately after the last IMTS ended. Yet in the case of many exhibitors, this scaling back felt like a step forward. Booths were less crowded with product permutations and less confused with different messaging. That refinement felt more in keeping with the notion of IMTS not as a shopping mall for manufacturing equipment, but instead as a place to go to connect with the people and organizations who can serve you as solution providers and technology partners. That is, a given booth this year tended to fragment your attention in fewer directions, and seemed to offer more breathing space for your own needs to be voiced.
3. Scaled-up effects
“3D” was a recurring element this year. We contributed to this—Modern Machine Shop screened 3D video in its booth. But various other exhibitors also had either 3D or large-scale film experiences as part of their displays. One exhibitor even did a very lifelike representation of people using 2D projection. It seems clear that creative use of media technology will continue to make IMTS displays more dynamic, cinematic and theatrically compelling.
4. Wind and air
Wind power was on my mind this year in part because my own drive up to Chicago for the show now passes through a vast northern-Indiana wind farm. Even so, an emphasis on the wind industry was plain to see. Primarily because of this market, for example, various exhibitors had new offerings related to machining large gears. Yet the attention given to this industry (and to others such as the automotive, medical and oil industries) paled beneath what seemed to be the most prominent industry focus of the show: aerospace. In certain regions of the metalcutting pavilion, it seemed as though no booth was complete unless it featured an impressive machined aerostructure or a turbine engine blade. Among the attractions at the show were a Rolls-Royce fan blade set and a scale model of an F-35 fighter aircraft.
5. Social media
This was the first IMTS at which the use of social media for business connections in our industry had reached a critical mass of acceptance. At this show, I got to meet people in person whom I had come to know almost exclusively because they are connected to me through my LinkedIn or Twitter profile. Attendees were urged to follow the show via the “#IMTS” search term in Twitter, and screens were even positioned around the show where this live Twitter activity could be seen.
The social media element in particular helps to highlight how the role of the trade show is evolving. During the 15 years or so that websites have been a routine part of our lives, I have experienced various moments of questioning a trade show’s continued value. Today, I no longer have those doubts. It’s true that because we do so much information gathering on the web, we no longer rely as much on a show like IMTS as a place for researching the field of technology. Still, IMTS continues to be a place where attendees encounter products and companies for the first time. Meanwhile, the show also continues to serve as a marvelously convenient setting for intensifying relationships between people and companies that might have previously known each other only through what can be transmitted online. I experienced the value of this. When I meet someone in person I know only through Twitter, I quickly gather in a lot of intuitive data that I can’t necessarily name—an understanding of what this person’s demeanor is like, for example, or a hint of how he regards himself. All of us gather these impressions, and they contribute to what we feel we "know" about another person. In a similar way, an attendee visiting the booth of a company that he or she knows only through a website can pick up a feel for vital insights such as the sorts of employees the company values, and how confident or sincere the company personnel are when they discuss the attendee’s own particular metalworking challenge.
In other words, the growth and sophistication of online communication seems actually to be bolstering and clarifying the role of IMTS. The massive industry gathering is the in-person complement to online connections. This biennial show is the most convenient place you can go to gather in lots of the sort of information that websites and other remote interaction—no matter how clever—simply cannot convey.