Impressions of IMTS 2016

Things changed this year. New technologies and a new generation were prominent, and together they are helping to take this show into its next era.


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The International Manufacturing Technology Show finished its week-long run in September with 115,612 total registrants, up slightly from when the show was last held two years ago. However, that number does not tell the most significant story. Far from making an incremental step forward, the show this year seemed to cross an important threshold, beginning to assume the form it will take next as it continues to respond to changes in industrial manufacturing.

Part of the change I am referring to is cultural and demographic. Baby boomers are leaving the industry and millennials are coming in, producing a particularly large generational step-change.

Meanwhile, an equally important change is technological. IMTS this year embraced and provided a serious forum for technologies that were present more as intriguing novelties at previous shows.

I don’t know what the sum of all the changes in these areas will ultimately bring about, but IMTS 2016 was the show at which we began to sketch the outline.

Here is some of what struck me in particular about this year’s show:

  1. Additive manufacturing. The increased prominence of additive manufacturing at the show this year lived up to expectations, even though expectations were high. Going into the show, we knew there would now be a new, dedicated Additive Manufacturing Pavilion at the front of the North Building, along with various machine tool companies in other pavilions showcasing their own AM technology. At the show, all of this gave the impression of additive manufacturing having now arrived. Additive simply makes sense at IMTS. The technology belongs at the show, and the show has now expanded to take it in because the options for making production parts have now expanded to include this possibility.
  2. Industry 4.0. While the high profile for AM was something I expected going into the show, the comparably high profile for digital manufacturing was something I discovered soon after I got there. Exhibitors across all product categories had invested effort within their exhibits to emphasize how the integration and data-reporting possibilities of their various technologies fit within the framework of Industry 4.0.

    It’s possible to be too quickly dismissive of this. Industry 4.0 is a broad idea embracing many uses of digital connectivity, so arguably it is relatively easy to claim association with the term. Yet I think that dismissiveness is the wrong way to look at what is happening. The vision of a manufacturing facility or network that can be adapted, diagnosed and optimized in both subtle and crucial ways because of the effectiveness of automated information-sharing is a big idea, but it is also a valuable idea for organizing the efforts of all of the technology developers that might contribute to this picture. Part of scaling a mountain together is agreeing on where the peak is located. IMTS this year showed we have that agreement.
  3. Cobots. Collaborative robots—those robots that are safe for unguarded use near people because of speed and force limitations combined with force-sensing technology—were all over this year’s show. Exhibitors wishing to demonstrate automation frequently used a cobot in the demo, for obvious reasons. A cobot allows for an exhibit in which the attendee can come right up to the demo and watch it in action very closely with no safety concern. But the cumulative result of this pervasive use of cobots was an IMTS that promoted the accessibility of robotic automation to a far greater extent than previous shows. Robots in general have been fairly easy to employ for some time, but the entire idea of adding a robot to one’s shop came off as a far friendlier prospect at the show this year.
  4. Purposefulness of attendees. I heard various exhibitors comment about this. To an extent that has noticeably increased, attendees to IMTS no longer show up to window-shop competing machines in particular categories so they can compare specs and features. Instead, it has become much more common for attendees to arrive with a mission, and a difficult mission at that. The shop owner or manager brings a certain vexing process inefficiency or bottleneck to IMTS exhibitors in order to ask, How can you help me solve this? Or the attendee comes to exhibitors with a part print saying, What solution can you give me for making this part cost-effectively? In fact, the arrival of additive manufacturing as a mainstream part of the show means that both the difficulty and the meaningfulness of the second question have now increased. For a given part that is still early in its conceptual stage, an additive approach and a very different subtractive approach to making that same part might both be worth considering.
  5. Automation as a given. Displays of automation at past editions of IMTS frequently conveyed the message, essentially, “You can get this machine with a robot!” This year, the message advanced. Displays of automation this time frequently began with the understanding that many IMTS attendees will expect to automate, so the exhibitor’s thrust was to show how it could apply automation more effectively or capably than others. One prominent machine tool exhibitor had a display in which it showed four different automated processes for machining the same part, so it could illustrate the strengths and the trade-offs of each choice.
  6. User experience. The most fundamental way in which manufacturing technology providers are responding to the generational change in manufacturing is in the area of user experience. At the show, this could be easily seen in, for example, control interfaces that provided for intuitive and graphic interaction far removed from traditional CNC screens. But this is just the surface evidence of a much bigger shift that is occurring and needs to occur. Manufacturing professionals of the past accepted that their trade’s technology required specialized and even obscure knowledge to put the technology to use, but young people entering the field have no context for this expectation. They’ve grown up in a world in which technology has reached out to them and provided a seamless route to engaging with it. Some of the most important engineering related to manufacturing devices and systems in the near future will be experiential engineering.
  7. Category breaking. Additive was not just in the Additive Manufacturing Pavilion, because various machine tool companies also showed how additive could complement their offerings. Similarly, Industry 4.0 was not just in the Controls & CAD/CAM Pavilion, because most or all categories of exhibitors were showing digital advances, including the major cutting tool exhibitor that made Industry 4.0 its primary theme. Increasingly, technology advance in manufacturing is taking the form of greater integration with other categories of manufacturing technology. At a show like IMTS, this means the categories are increasingly being transcended, and innovations significant to a given technology category might be found in any part of the show. It is time to take note that this is happening, because the evolution at least subtly affects how we think about the show and how attendees can best make use of it.

Indeed, one takeaway from 2016 as it relates to IMTS 2018 might be this: The next time the show is held, a worthwhile resolution might be to make an even more deliberate point of leaving time to roam through aisles and pavilions outside the attendee’s presumed interest and focus. Increasingly, the solution to any particular challenge might come out of an area of the show that is different from the one in which we would expect to look.