A New Manufacturing Age?

The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) was an extravaganza that presented many new solutions to production and quality problems.

The Big Top in manufacturing technology is always IMTS, the International Manufacturing Technology Show. Last month’s extravaganza at McCormick Place in Chicago presented to the factory world all kinds of new solutions to production and quality problems.

It was also the 75th anniversary of the establishment of this advanced technology show, and many old-timers (me included, I suppose) can recall earlier shows and their breakthrough technologies such as numerical control and then computer control back in the ’60s.

More importantly, however, was the technical progress that the machine tool industry and its related technologies had made in just the last two years, and the fact that attendees seemed committed to investment. “There were definitely people on hand who were serious buyers and who wanted to evaluate new technology,” said John Winch, Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT, the sponsor of IMTS) chairman, and president and CEO of Minster Machine in Minster, Ohio. “The auto sector is entering a new model year and is contemplating new capital expenditures,” he added.

IMTS2002 exhibitors displayed a new array of significantly improved systems and machines, and, as has been the trend since the industrial revolution began, the cost of becoming a producer has declined again — dramatically.

In fact, if you want to make a career change into the machining business, you can now buy a CNC “starter set” for somewhere in the range of $20,000 to $35,000 from such builders as Haas, Bridgeport, Clausing, Fadal, Hurco and Milltronics. Consider that the machine you’re getting for that new car price is the equivalent of an entire machine shop (including some skills now rare or gone) of 20 years ago.

Minster showed off a new high-speed blanking machine called the XL80, which incorporates several material handling functions, such as leveling, decoiling and feeding, into the machine. This increasing functionality continues to be a major trend in the industry.

Mazak, the leading company in the machine tool systems business (Japanese but with a huge manufacturing presence in Florence, Kentucky), continues to add more and more functionality to its “multi-tasking” line, which comes close to doing everything in one place. Ingersoll’s MultiTec and Hardinge’s product were also showing multi-tasking at the show, and Ingersoll was able to show “fiber replacement technology” that makes a finished dome. Try to visualize that and its complexity becomes clear. It’s hard to believe even when you watch it.

It is impossible to list all the new entries into the quality and productivity race on this one page. Suffice it to say that laser cutting and fabricating, improved programming and controls technology, linear motion drives systems and the use of shape-memory alloys in tool-holding systems as well as greatly enhanced EDM added up to an almost overwhelming array of new technologies for the industrial world.

Of course, one big question on everyone’s mind was: Would companies buy all this in sufficient volume to keep the country’s manufacturing sector from slipping back into recession? “There was a sense of the upbeat at the show. Certainly it was more optimistic than a few months ago,” said Winch. Overall, the show and the action on the floor were “better than expected,” he added.

There were two anniversaries recognized this year at IMTS — the one everyone in the world took part in for 9/11 and the one only manufacturing people would care much about. While to some, neither anniversary seemed to have much to do with the other, they were related in profound ways. The Association for Manufacturing Technology dubbed IMTS2002 as the dawning of “A New Age of Manufacturing.” Tragically, another new drama had been playing itself out for a year by show time.

The Twin Towers were destroyed and 3,000 people died at the hands of a group of men who hated the Western World — America in particular. What they hated so much is the stupendous success of our way of life, of free enterprise and of freedom itself.

Both the World Trade Center and the nation’s manufacturing technology builders represent the same thing: the American Century, the land of productivity, cultural options and common decency. The target on 9/11 was as much the industrious men and women in Chicago and in factories and shops across the land as the thousands who died doing their jobs in New York.

The recognition of both anniversaries at McCormick Place last month took place with the singing of “God Bless America” at the opening of the show. “It was most appropriate,” concluded AMT’s Chairman Winch. I’m sure you agree.

George Weimer, contributing editor, [email protected]

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