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For Digitization in Manufacturing, the Show Will Go On

Not even a pandemic can interfere with metalworking’s inexorable technological progress. Blowing way past automation, entrepreneurs are harnessing digital know-how to solve analog problems — wherever they find them.




Opened in 1960, North America’s largest convention center has been home to the nation’s largest biannual metalworking trade show for many years. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, that tradition is being suspended for this year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) at McCormick Place in mid-September.

In early April, with coronavirus deaths projected to peak in mid-May, Chicago’s health department commandeered McCormick Place to build a 3,000-bed medical facility that’s being dismantled due to – thankfully – underuse.

So the convention center was available, but not necessarily open for business. It’s owned by the city, but managed by a private company. Both are bound by the requirements of Ill. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan, which allows conventions in phase five only if a vaccine or highly effective treatment protocol for the virus has been found. As of early June, the city had just entered phase three.

“In light of these difficult and challenging circumstances, the show had to be canceled,” said Peter R. Eelman, vice president and CXO of the show’s owner, AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology. “While this saddens us, the health and safety of our exhibitors and audience remains our top priority. We do, however, realize and understand that even though there is no physical event this year, it’s our responsibility to provide the exhibitors and the audience with connections, networking opportunities, and technical knowledge.”

To accomplish those goals, AMT is launching two programs:

  • IMTS Network, a live stream of a wide variety of human interest, emerging technology trends, and other features.
  • IMTS Spark, a new digital platform that connects exhibitors and visitors for educational and networking opportunities.

Ironically, the move to a digital experience echoes the show’s theme: Digital Manufacturing. Implemented.

“Basic” products, such as a pneumatic valve, come with apps for adjusting functions like proportional pressure regulation, directional control, leak detection, timed motion, acceleration/deceleration, and soft stops. Sensors gather the data such apps use. Fueled by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, machines “learn” what trends within the data portend.

Wireless communications tie component to machine to facility, sharing information that can be used to avert downtime by predicting failure and automatically sending maintenance alerts. Machines that used to perform one process can now perform two, combining metal cutting (which AMT refers to as “removal”) with 3-D printing or welding and in-situ measurement with automated part loading/unloading.

All this is made possible by software designed to resolve interoperability issues, facilitate and harden networking, and provide data analysis and security – a different challenge than, say, developing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or CAD/CAM platform. That’s been the sticking point, but according to AMT we’re nearing the point at which deployment isn’t completely frustrating.

In other words, productivity improvements won’t come from physical attributes like faster or more robust machine tools, but from connectivity and interoperability. Eelman, who has more than four decades of industry experience, likens the impact to that of the advent of the PC-based controller.

Digital Solutions to Analog Problems

A new generation of entrepreneurs thinks it can leverage technologies to eliminate what they consider unacceptable weak links in manufacturing. Raised on the instant gratification the internet provides, they’re applying digitization to back-office and production tasks like quoting and programming. If you’re a machinist or manufacturing engineer, that’s probably not as sexy as production; but it’s at least as important to winning new business.

We’ve written about manufacturers who developed and monetized digital platforms to solve their own internal issues (see “Going Digital” on page 30 of our March 2020 issue), but this issue’s cover subject – San Francisco-based Plethora Corp. – took the opposite tack. It started manufacturing after developing a digital solution that ties programming to part design in near-real time (click here to read about it).

Most of you aren’t software developers, though, so we share Todd White’s story on page 50. He didn’t reinvent the wheel to earn a living working almost solely with an online manufacturing as a service (MaaS) platform.

Back to IMTS Spark 2020…

Almost 2,000 companies planned to bring 15,000 new machine tools, controls, computers, software, components, systems, and/or processes to the show this fall. We’re going to continue sharing them as we receive the information from companies because, regardless of what happens with the show, they’re all tools you can use to increase your company’s competitiveness and profitability.


Manufacturing in the age of coronavirus…

We hope you, your loved ones, and your business are doing as well as can be expected in these uncertain, unsettling times. I was looking forward to visiting with many of you and touring your operations this spring and summer – and then the pandemic hit. We assume you’re busy filling orders and registering employees for online training, but we don’t know for sure. So how are you doing? Please feel free to email me at Thank you and stay well.


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Calendar & Events
Greater Chicago Design-2-Part Show
August 3 - 4, 2021
Schaumburg Convention Center – Schaumburg, IL
MD&M West
August 10 - 11, 2021
Anaheim, CA
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Wisconsin Manufacturing & Technology Show
October 5 - 7, 2021
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October 19 - 21, 2021
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