Dreaming & Doing – 5 Trends from IMTS 2018

Additive manufacturing, automation, the Industrial Internet of Things and more.

Looking down on the main concourse in McCormick Place. (Image courtesy of the author.)

Attending the biennial International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) is—to borrow a favorite phrase from our own James Anderton—like drinking from a firehose. This was my second IMTS, and I can confidently say that the firehose has gotten a lot bigger since 2016. It’s simply impossible to take in everything at the show, but over the course of my four days there, I did notice some reoccurring themes.

Here are five trends that stood out at IMTS 2018.

5) Additive Manufacturing for Production

Two of the biggest announcements from this year’s show concerned additive manufacturing (AM), with an emphasis on the manufacturing. On the same day that HP officially announced its new Metal Jet 3D printing technology, 3D Systems and GF Machining Solutions unveiled the DMP Factory 500 system for metal additive manufacturing at production volumes. It’s been talked about for years, but it looks like 3D printing is finally coming into its own as a production technology.

GEFERTEC was one of many companies that sold machines right off the show floor. In this photo, GEFERTEC CEO Tobias Rohrich (center), stands with Harlow CEO Alan Pearce (left) and CFO David Gordon-Smith (right). (Image courtesy of GEFERTEC.)

GEFERTEC was one of many companies to sell a machine right off the show floor, in this case to Harlow Group Ltd. In this photo, GEFERTEC CEO Tobias Röhrich (center), stands with Harlow CEO Alan Pearce (left) and CFO David Gordon-Smith (right). (Image courtesy of GEFERTEC.)

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean making end-use parts—many of the companies I spoke to highlighted the supporting role 3D printing can play for jigs, fixtures and tooling. But perhaps the most obvious indicator of how much additive manufacturing has matured since the last IMTS is the relative size of the AM area at the show.

Two years ago, it took up a respectable amount of floorspace at the front of the North Hall. This year, I’d guess the AM section (now in the West Hall) was at least double the size. Not only that, but several of the heavy hitters from machine tools—such as Mazak and DMG MORI—elected to exhibit their own additive solutions there, rather than in their main booths. Given the recent progress we’ve seen, it’s a safe bet that the AM area at IMTS 2020 will be even bigger.

4) IoT Connectivity as a Standard Feature

Like 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT) has had a lot of buzz in manufacturing, typically under the label Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). At IMTS 2016, IIoT connectivity was a selling point for a piece of equipment. This year, it seemed more like an expected feature. Everything from machine tools to consumables seemed to have the potential to connect to the IIoT, though that qualifier should give one pause.

While seemingly every vendor of machines, tools, and machine tools exhibited their take on the process monitoring dashboard or proclaimed support for a new fieldbus or data standard, more established IT and IoT firms seemed to advise caution. How and why are you implementing new IoT technology in your operations? Are you ready?

Slide from the DMG MORI press conference. (Image courtesy of the author.)

Slide from the DMG MORI press conference. (Image courtesy of the author.)

“It’s not just a connected machine, it’s smart devices and components inside the machine,” said John Kacsur, Global Director, Automotive & Tire at Rockwell Automation. “For example, Rockwell Automation sells photoelectric sensors, which in the past may have just been on or off. Today, there are photoelectric sensors which can alert you when the lens is getting dusty, and to what extent. It can alert the operator to come wipe it down before it fails.” There are several considerations before implementing an IoT project, and Kacsur highlighted one of them: the network infrastructure. “We always remind people that smart assets or machines produces a lot of information, and require more bandwidth. It requires a plant ethernet backbone that is safe and robust. That’s the foundation of everything we’re talking about,” he said.

3) The Dreaded Skills Gap

As we get closer to 2025, the pressure to find a solution to the impending skills gap becomes all the more pressing. By that year, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predict that 2 million American manufacturing jobs will have gone unfilled due to a lack of skilled labor. Manufacturers were certainly aware of the issue at the last IMTS (the report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute was published in 2015), but it seems as though the news has taken a few years to settle in.

Despite record-breaking attendance, the latest IMTS saw plenty of apprehension over the shortage of skilled labor. (Image courtesy of the author.)

Despite record-breaking attendance, the latest IMTS saw plenty of apprehension over the shortage of skilled labor. (Image courtesy of the author.)

“In the Midwest, it’s practically a zero percent unemployment rate,” one exhibitor confessed. “You can’t find enough people who can pass a drug test to run a third shift.” In other words, although the worst of the skills gap is still ahead of us, manufacturers are already starting to feel the pinch.

Good help has always been hard to find, but the Baby Boomers aren’t getting any younger (sorry for the reminder), and as more and more retire, what’s sometimes called the silver tsunami threatens to wash away all the economic progress that’s been made since the Great Recession. What’s more, growing anxiety over the lack of skilled labor seemed to be driving another notable trend at IMTS 2018.

2) Automation is Becoming a Necessity

When people worry about robots taking jobs away from humans, I think the scenario they generally have in mind is one where a plant manager announces to their employees on a Friday afternoon: “You’re all fired; the robots will be here on Monday to replace you.” Nowadays, we know that’s not the typical case: workers aren’t being replaced on a 1:1 basis by robots.

However, if you can’t find a human for the job you need to fill, a robot or other form of automation may be your only option. Many of the machine tool builders I spoke with seemed to understand this predicament, which is why more and more of them are including automated gantries or pallet loading systems as a standard option on new machines.

Beyond machine tools, we’re seeing developments with an eye to greater automation in the world of data. One of the most cutting-edge exhibits was in the North Hall’s Emerging Technology Center, where the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) together with ROS, NIST, MT Connect and other industry partners, showcased a digital manufacturing cell which utilized machine-to-machine communication.

(Image courtesy of Isaac Maw.)

(Image courtesy of Isaac Maw.)

In this setup, the CNC could signal the robot that a process was finished. The robot would pick the part from the machine, place it in a coordinate measuring machine (CMM), and then signal the CMM to begin the inspection process. Because of the machine-to-machine communication, the cell is completely flexible. The robot is not running a carefully timed program, but actively responding to the machines it is tending. “There’s no more waiting for a human to ‘pick up the phone,’ said Matt Robinson, program manager of the Adaptive Technologies Section at SWRI, who explained that the system effectively eliminates the potential automation delay of waiting for operator input.

Based on this presentation, it seems that exhibitors at IMTS 2020 will likely showcase a whole new level of advanced flexibility in machine and robot cooperation, upgrading interoperability and better utilizing the data we all seem to be collecting from production equipment.

1) Everyone is Talking about Industry 4.0 (And No One Knows What It Is)

This was by far the most frustrating trend at IMTS 2018. The term ‘Industry 4.0’ has become such a buzzword that everyone feels the need to use it in reference to their products, whether it really applies or not. To all the marketers out there who’ve fallen into this trap, I want to offer some constructive criticism for IMTS 2020.

Here are a few things Industry 4.0 is not:

  • Additive Manufacturing
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Automation
  • The Internet of Things
  • Touchscreen Controls
  • Larger Displays
  • Mobile Apps
  • A Journey
  • A State of Mind

Now, to be fair, most of the items on this list are subsumed by Industry 4.0 but trying to reduce the concept to any one of them—or suggesting that the presence of one is sufficient to qualify your product as “Industry 4.0-ready”—is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.

The Taiwan Association of Machinery Industry put on the most futuristic press conference I've ever attended, but I wouldn't call it a revolution in media. (Image courtesy of the author.)

The Taiwan Association of Machinery Industry put on the most futuristic press conference I’ve ever attended, but I still wouldn’t call it an example of Industry 4.0. (Image courtesy of the author.)

Industry 4.0 is, first and foremost, an industrial revolution and revolutions are nothing if not multifaceted. Connectivity between factories as well as individual assets may be at the core of Industry 4.0, but that doesn’t mean you can make “A Wrench for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” with the simple addition of an RFID tag. Before you fall into the trap of branding every new product with the Industry 4.0 label, consider whether and how that product could fit into an ecosystem of interconnected factories. If your answer is, “The customers will figure it out,” then you’re probably more worried about marketing than manufacturing.

Dreaming & Doing at IMTS 2018

The slogan for this year’s IMTS, “Where Dreamers & Doers Connect”, sounds like the least objectionable option selected by a committee trying to wrap a meeting that’s gone on far too long. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth underlying it. Manufacturing is very much a “dooer’s” business, but who are the dreamers? As far as I could see, the best candidates are the hundreds—possibly thousands—of children who visited the show with their parents or teachers.

(Image courtesy of the author.)

(Image courtesy of the author.)

This is the generation you’re going to hear more and more about as Millennials get older, settle down and give up their murderous ways. It’s also the generation that could make or break American manufacturing, with the skills gap coming into full swing right around the time they start to enter the workforce. There will be three more iterations of IMTS between then and now; let’s hope they’re as successful as this one seemed to be.