The Best Thing at IMTS 2018? You Probably Already Have It

More than 2,500 manufacturers brought their latest and greatest to the Windy City for IMTS. The best thing I saw, though, wasn't for sale, despite being the industry's most valuable asset right now.

Only 22 players are allowed to play on Chicago's Soldier's Field at a time. Across the way, the massive McCormick's Place, home of this week's 2018 International Manufacturing Technology Show, allowed an average of 85 manufacturing players per each of the 25 football fields worth of exhibition space. That equals 1,424,232 square feet and 2,123 booths.

IMTS has traditionally been the machining industry's Super Bowl: a flashy, noisy spectacle with the biggest names going their absolute hardest, with intermittent gorging on deep dish pizza, wings and beer. All these companies, from around the world, are competing to keep customers loyal by launching and demoing brand new tools and technology, while at the same time attempting to intercept someone else's prized clients.

And there were a lot of potential customers to catch. In the first four days, the Association for Manufacturing Technology, which manages the show, registered 127,214 attendees. That's 12,000 more than the 2016 show with one day remaining. What does it all mean?

Maybe the economy is doing so well that these manufacturers and job shops need more CNC machines and industrial robots to keep up with the orders. Or maybe they sense they need to be more efficient than ever because hard times are ahead, so they're looking for the best hardware and software to get them as lean as possible. In either case, it's doubtful they left disappointed.

While I didn’t see everything in my three days running from East to West building, and weaving through the labyrinths of the North and South halls, I tried to visit as many booths as a I could, and talk to as many people as possible. Several conversations with exhibitors indicate the crowd was excited about manufacturing's near future and were ready to invest. What I witnessed backed that up.

The giant exhibit spaces for machining equipment makers such as Mazak and Haas were so crowded you could often only see the tops of the huge mills and CNC machines. Even the FANUC team's screaming yellow blazers were at times muffled by the crush of excited visitors. Nothing, though, could cover up the imposing M-2000iA industrial robot, which can hoist up a minivan just as easily as Mike Ditka would a Polish sausage.

That's not even the most amazing thing that sticks out to me. I took pictures of most, which you can see in the photo gallery. But I can’t capture in just one story how I get the feeling the U.S. manufacturing industry is on the cusp of making a significant turn back to prominence. It's how I felt watching my poor Cleveland Browns last Sunday. The industry is playing with a lot of talent and guts, but the team as a whole doesn’t quite know how to win yet.

But now at least it feels like we can win. The problems facing the industry, from finding more skilled workers to managing new technologies, are within manufacturers' control. And many of the solutions were right there this week, and a lot of people were talking about them, as if the collective consciousness decided it was sick of being fearful and ignorant. So I guess the real best thing I saw at IMTS wasn't some robot or cool 3D-printed gadget. It was hope.

(I did capture a lot of cool stuff, though, so by all means check out the slideshow, too.)

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