IMTS Technology Trends, Top Shops Data

Consider how leading machine shops are currently leveraging or planning to leverage a few industry trends that were prominent at this year’s show.

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During IMTS, Mark Albert, Pete Zelinski and I were featured in a few videos in which we offered our thoughts largely about three industry trends: additive manufacturing (AM), data-driven manufacturing and robotic automation. (You can find these videos at imts.com/imtstv.) These trends were certainly conspicuous at this year’s show as evidenced by the greater presence of equipment, software and solutions to facilitate their integration.

Being that I’m so involved with our annual Top Shops benchmarking program, I looked at recent surveys to understand the extent to which shops are actually applying these technologies, especially given that AM and data-driven manufacturing are relatively new practices.

In the past few surveys, the percentage of Top Shops and other surveyed shops that have AM equipment has been essentially the same at an average of 15.7 percent. (The Top Shops represents our top-tier benchmarking group determined by adding points assigned to select survey questions.) While this percentage hasn’t been trending up over the years, it seems the shops that do have AM equipment are finding new ways to use it. Most shops use the equipment to produce “look-and- feel” prototypes for their customers to help validate designs. In fact, all of this year’s Top Shops with that equipment use it for that purpose. However, this year’s survey shows a much higher percentage of Top Shops are also using AM to 3D-print tooling and fixturing for use on their shop floors compared to other shops (85 compared to 48 percent).

Machine monitoring is likely the first and most important step toward implementing data-driven manufacturing/Industrial Internet of Things concepts. In this year’s survey, essentially the same percentage of shops (approximately 77 percent) said they have plans to install a machine-monitoring system. That said, a higher percentage of Top Shops plan to begin system installation in the second half of this year (34 compared to 17 percent), while others are putting it off until 2017 or later. This isn’t surprising given that Top Shops are typically more apt to adopt advanced manufacturing practices (and do so sooner) than other shops.

This year’s survey was atypical in that a lower percentage of Top Shops use machine-tending robots than other shops (11 compared to 19 percent), although the trend over the past six survey years has an upward trajectory. What will be interesting is whether the continued advancement of collaborative robots will push that trend’s slope even higher. Known as “cobots,” these robots use sensor technology, enabling them to safely function alongside humans without safety fencing. If the vast number of cobots at IMTS is any indication (as well as advances displayed such as cobot-specific end effectors and apps to streamline cobot integration), these devices are going to be increasingly applied in shops moving forward.

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