Standing in line for the first shuttle to the first day of IMTS 2012 in Chicago last week, all anyone could talk about was attendance.
The news had just broken that pre-sale admission had already exceeded IMTS 2010's total headcount, which led to speculative estimates that as many as 90,000 buyers would be roaming the halls at McCormick Place -- crushing all conservative expectations.
Those guesses were all wrong, of course. By Saturday attendance actually broke the 100,000 mark.
On the bus, this translated into a kind of energy rarely felt since the recession of '08/'09. These 100,000+ attendees were in Chicago to buy. To buy a lot. And they made that clear from the start.
Snaking through the protest-clogged streets of downtown, anticipation for the pending buying-spree built up fast. I overheard one company rep discussing strategy with his partner, telling her, "We're not leaving until we retool the whole shop."
That, as far as I could tell, was the battle cry for the show.
This was my first IMTS, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I had done enough research and had watched enough videos from previous events to understand roughly the scope of the show (13 miles of aisles, 10,000 or so machines, etc.) and the kind of glitzy presentations that would fill the halls (i.e. the blackjack-dealing robot at the Motoman Robotics exhibit).
What I wasn't expecting, however, was the seriousness of the crowd, the determination to, as the man on the bus said, retool and re-equip their shops after a long, long buying freeze.
Much of the information about how this energy or seriousness translated into actual sales is still anecdotal, but there is enough of it to anticipate some impressive jumps in the next Machine Tool Orders report, and enough maybe to expect a ripple from that jump to make its way all through the U.S. economy.
Reps stationed at booths across the floor at IMTS reported significant upticks to sound leads, which came so rapidly and so consistently that it was often impossible for those of us on the media side to capture any uninterrupted video of products or demonstrations. I was even elbowed out of my first attempt to visit Mazak's gigantic, gleaming booth.
At one point, still early in the show, I traversed the complex from west to east, and along the way I overheard two job offers and four confirmed machine tool orders. This 15 minute period, taken as a snapshot of the weeklong event, pretty much sums up my experience at the show.
Additive manufacturer ExOne President and COO, Dave Burns probably described the environment best when he noted, "If you can't sell manufacturing technology at this show in this economic environment to these customers, you just can't sell."