The Next Big Thing?

Watch for bold advances in technology, but be moderate in expectations for sudden and dramatic change. That’s not how our industry progresses.

One of the exciting endeavors when attending IMTS is the search for the Next Big Thing—a blockbuster development that alters the course of manufacturing. Will we find such a showstopper this year? Perhaps. Many exhibitors would have you believe it’s a new product in their booths.

I don’t take much stock in Next Big Things. I think we should be more interested in looking for the small things that make a big difference over time or have an immediate impact on a current but problematic application. It’s not that I don’t believe in Next Big Things. It’s that I’ve learned their first appearance is often underwhelming, likely to be overlooked or underappreciated. Or the hype surrounding them is just that—hype.

This is not to say that major shifts in manufacturing processes and applications are not underway. They are, but their influence is not likely to create precipitous upheavals in the short term. For example, in my lifetime, the greatest change in machining has been the triumph of computer numerical control. It started in the 1950s but didn’t become the pervasive machining method until the 1980s. Even so, there is still a place for basic manual machines in toolrooms and training labs.

Likewise, the first viable additive manufacturing process appeared in the late 1980s and was instantly proclaimed to spell the end of traditional machining. Twenty years later, the impact of additive technology is just beginning to gain momentum. It promises to complement and enhance milling, turning and grinding rather than displace them outright.

The lesson here is that new technology rarely wipes out old technology. In fact, the new technology often strengthens or redirects old technology in surprising ways, especially if the keepers of the old technology are alert, agile and able to reinvent their products. Consider the mainstream machine tool builders who have combined additive and subtractive processes on what is essentially a machining center platform. Who knows? Additive processes may enable cutting tool manufacturers to invent milling or turning tools of prodigious material-removal capacity.

When breakthrough technology does appear, the disruption it causes cuts both ways. Competition among developers leads some to failure, others to success. Likewise, the challenge to established companies will strengthen some and mortally weaken others. Ten or 12 years ago, it appeared that the Internet would be the eventual doom of trade publications and the demise of trade shows—everyone would do their research and machine selection online. Instead, the digital technology and online tools developed for the Internet-enabled savvy publishers and show sponsors to take their products to higher levels of value and appeal. So here we are: Print publications such as the one you are reading are thriving. The trade show we are talking about is bigger and better than ever.

While IMTS may not be about the Next Big Thing, it is all about Next Things—the new products that promise to make your operations more productive and profitable.