Five Trends to Watch at IMTS 2014

Originally titled 'Five Trends to Watch at IMTS'

Keeping these emerging trends and patterns in mind will help you see IMTS in a new dimension.

When you first looked at the cover of the August 2014 issue of Modern Machine Shop, what did you see? You may have seen many snippets of paper in different shapes and colors. Or you may have seen the classic skyline of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue rising above the famous Bean alongside the familiar IMTS hot air balloon. Of course, both views are “correct,” and this duality adds to the interest and appeal of this cover.

The same point can be made about the entire IMTS experience. Thousands of new and current manufacturing products will be assembled there, hall after hall, pavilion after pavilion, booth to booth to booth. Like most visitors to the show, you and your buying team are likely to have specific machine types or process capabilities you intend to explore and investigate.

Yet there is more to see. IMTS is also about Big Ideas—trends, patterns and emerging developments. You should look for those, too.

We’ve picked five of the trends and technologies that strike us as some of the most far-
reaching and significant. Having these in mind as you traverse McCormick Place or peruse the hundreds of products presented in the next 200 pages of this magazine will help you target your product searches. This exercise will add another dimension to the IMTS experience. We also hope it will inspire you to discern other Big Ideas that rise out of the splendid technology collage that is IMTS. And remember, there are always at least two ways to look at things.


Additive manufacturing pushes back the boundaries of part production. By “growing” or “printing” functional parts through a process that adds one precise layer at a time, manufacturers can economically produce complex components in quantities that would be too small to justify die or mold tooling. They can also produce geometric features such as internal honeycomb structures or curving channels that would be impossible to create any other way. Because of the design freedoms, the use of additive manufacturing seems all but certain to grow. Greater material efficiency, cost and weight savings, customization, and the ability to replace assemblies with one-piece structures are all benefits that engineers will increasingly realize as they learn to take advantage of the opportunities that additive manufacturing provides.

Will additive manufacturing replace traditional subtractive processes? In some cases it will, but this development is not likely to have a major effect on the overall importance of “chip making” machine tools and metalforming equipment. In fact, the introduction of hybrid machines that combine subtractive and additive processes on one platform opens up possibilities that confirm the complementary nature of these technologies.

Many shops and plants will be adding additive manufacturing machines to their lineup of capabilities, but few will be abandoning some other traditional process as a result—at least in the short term.


It is clear that automation is essential to success in manufacturing. However, success in automation is not automatic. Automation must be applied skillfully, that is, with knowledge, experience, originality and boldness. Everyone in manufacturing must become more productive, that is, able to get more output with less input, especially less labor input. Automation promises greater consistency and higher quality. It can deliver faster throughput with less work in process. It leads to higher equipment usage and lower cost per part. Yet automation can be challenging. Reliability is critical. Flexibility and configurability can be limited. Startup costs are often high. Complex programming and system interoperability must be addressed. For the knowledgeable, however, the rewards are easier to realize, and the risks are easier to manage.

The persistent perception that automation is a job-killer is unfortunate. In fact, automation is a much-needed multiplier. Allowing robots and other devices to execute repetitive tasks expands the amount of production and the number of simultaneous operations that a human being can oversee. This value of automation is becoming increasingly apparent as demographic shifts make skilled manufacturing professionals more difficult to find. Rather than being a replacement for employees, automation is leverage that increases the value of an individual employee by freeing this person to focus attention on the work that requires human knowledge or human judgment.


Data-driven manufacturing simply means that shops and plants will use facts and figures to make decisions that control manufacturing processes. To drive manufacturing, factual information has to be available so that people and computers can use it. Data-driven manufacturing implies that factual information is replacing guesswork, wishful thinking, unproven theories or personal opinions in the decision-making process. It brings more intellectual certainty and emotional neutrality to managing shop operations. Likewise, data-driven manufacturing implies that computers and people will be making better, more timely decisions.

Data can be properly defined as any collection of facts. The data necessary to drive manufacturing can come from many sources and exist in many formats. However, data that is in a digital format will be the most useful, because it can be collected, processed and stored by computers. Machine tools, for example, generate a lot of data. We now have better methods to gather that data in real time so it can be analyzed and organized in software applications that make it usable by people who make decisions.

Big Data will certainly become one of the most important sources of the information used to drive manufacturing. Big Data refers to the ability to find significant trends or emerging patterns only detectable by rapidly scanning many millions of unstructured data items aggregated in massive networks of shareable computer storage that is accessible online. This is the so-called data cloud. Using Big Data for manufacturing is already becoming a reality because the means to stream vast amounts of data from machine tools and other manufacturing equipment into this data cloud are available.


Rapid developments in machining technology, management practices and business policies make it difficult for shop owners and plant managers to make sure they are not falling behind in a key area of competitiveness. This operational environment requires shops of all types to compare their business metrics against industry leaders. In metalworking manufacturing, the four key areas are machining technology, shopfloor practices, business strategies and human resources.

A recent survey designed to identify and quantify critical characteristics within each of these five areas established the “high water mark” by which shops and plants can evaluate their performance in each of these areas. This enables them to accurately assess their performance against the achievements of “top shops” that represent world-class competitiveness in discrete parts manufacturing. For example, top shops tend to serve a wider variety of industries than other shops, and a higher percentage of them are performing work for the aerospace industry, which demands advanced manufacturing capability. They are also taking better advantage of work coming back to North America.

In a nutshell, the survey detailed these findings about the “top shops” benchmarking group:

• Machining Technology—Top shops are more likely than other shops to use advanced machining equipment, including five-axis machines, turn-mill machines and Swiss-type lathes. This equipment is well-suited for the complex work they often perform, and in some cases can produce parts complete.

• Shopfloor Practices—Top shops are able to complete setups for new jobs in nearly half the time as other shops. They also implement a variety of lean manufacturing concepts, such as 5S workplace organization and value stream mapping, to eliminate wasteful activities from their processes.

• Business Strategies—At these top shops, median sales per machine have nearly tripled compared to an early survey, and median sales per employee have increased by nearly 50 percent. These shops are also more apt to leverage online and social media outlets to market their business.

• Human Resources—Top shops pay their shopfloor employees essentially the same as other shops but offer more numerous human-resource benefits to help retain their good employees.


An automobile consists of about 30,000 parts, making it the most complex mass-produced product, made at an average rate of 60 per hour. Think about it: A car not only consists of large stampings, engine blocks that are cast and machined, fuel injectors with nozzles that have micron tolerances, massive injection-molded fascias and instrument panels, and an array of electronics that NASA might envy, but all of those parts must come together to create an object that operates in Alaska in the dead of winter and Death Valley at the peak of summer.

If that isn’t challenging enough, there are international regulations that now require automakers to rethink how their cars and trucks are powered and built. In the United States, the fleet average for OEMs is 54.5 mpg and regulations in Europe and China are similarly daunting. So whether it is Ford or BMW or Hyundai or VW, every OEM has to hit the mark. This means downsized, turbo-charged engines. Hybrids. Electric vehicles. This means the use of ultra-high-strength steels, aluminum alloys and advanced composites. This means that the fairly standardized approach to automotive manufacturing that has existed for nearly 100 years is giving way to a new model, in which flexibility and choice are the norm—and these choices are much more than the paint color and the material used to cover the seats.

Whether it is a small supplier that’s stamping out brackets or the largest integrated manufacturer that is providing the world markets with everything from microcars to commercial trucks, the manufacturing scene is changing in automotive on an entirely unprecedented scale.


However one gathers the observations and findings that begin to merge into a deeper understanding of the direction in which manufacturing is headed, putting them together into a coherent insight is the ultimate aim. One way to consolidate this formative thinking is to visit the Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC) in Booth W-10 (West Hall) at IMTS. AMC is a collaborative display between Gardner Business Media’s Metalworking Group (publisher of this magazine and its sister publications) and the sponsors of IMTS. Each of the five trends and technologies discussed here will be the center of a “solutions network” that brings together pertinent displays, live technical presentations and a booklet containing selected articles and backgrounders for further study and reference. The intent of the AMC is to sharpen the focus of the manufacturing community so that it can behold a clearer picture of the multifaceted shape into which manufacturing is morphing.

Like that collage on the cover, IMTS is a colorful, intricate, contrasting aggregation of technology offerings. Finding the ones that fit into each shop’s or plant’s vision of future readiness is a priority. Filling the mind’s eye with something more is the opportunity that beckons. Gaze. Dream. Prepare.

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