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Future Tech Goes Mainstream at IMTS

International Manufacturing Technology Show, IMTS, 3D printing, robots, IoT, AR, digital twin, cobots
The International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago displayed smart manufacturing as ready for integration and available to all.

Smart manufacturing no longer belongs to the edgy future. It’s commonplace and integrated. The mammoth International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago last week was dazzling in the absolute everydayness of smart tech. In manufacturing, we apparently have caught up with the future. This moment reminds me of the time in the late 1980s when all my non-tech friends suddenly owned PCs. Or that time in the late '90s when those same tech neophytes were all connected to AOL.

IMTS displayed the utter democratization of smart manufacturing technology. (Image source: Design News)

I don’t know if every shop floor now deploys robots, predictive maintenance, IoT, 3D printing, generative design, or mobile dashboards that display every aspect of the manufacturing process. But if they don’t, it’s not because the technology is not available, easily usable, and relatively inexpensive.

A Really Big Show

The show was really big: 130,000 attendees walking around four multi-floor buildings that house 2,400 exhibitors across 3.3 million square feet of exhibit space. IMTS now also includes Hannover Messe USA, which claimed 130,000 of those square feet. And all of that space and all of those exhibitors were showing advanced manufacturing technology.

Aside from the show's massive size, it was the commonness of the technology that dazzled—the quick and deep acceptance of production 3D printing in the world of robots and Internet connectivity. In a report out this week, ABI Research claims that “the landscape is set for the next American Industrial Revolution.”

IMTS Takeaways

Based on IMTS, ABI points to several emerging technologies that look set to enable manufacturers to develop competitive markets, including:

  • Additive manufacturing is on the cusp of being able to demonstrate its applicability for scale deployment. 
  • Generative design promises to reduce wastage, speed design processes, and revolutionize material usage.
  • Virtualization, visualization, and digital twins are set to reduce machine downtime and machine commissioning time—as well as improve the efficiency of all aspects of part and product manufacturing—from start to end.
  • Cobots and autonomous material handling robots are set to enable a more efficient and zero touch environment that not only optimizes the shop floor, but also extends beyond the line to both ends of the process—in the warehouse and eventually into the logistics supply chain.
  • AI (Artificial Intelligence), sensorization, connectivity, and IoT (Internet of Things) will be key to optimizing productivity. However, they are currently being held back by conservative attitudes toward data management and connecting machines. This will change as market pressure mounts.

Stuart Carlaw, chief research officer at ABI, noted, “Some of these technologies will enable the democratization of automation down into the small and medium-sized enterprises. This will have significant impact on gross domestic product and national output.”

This year, IMTS showed that we’re off to the races on getting smart technology into the hands of nearly every manufacturer. Last week, I saw the future crash into the present.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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