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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

IMTS 2016: Exhausting, But Exhilarating

September 15th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

IMTS LogoHeld every two years at McCormick Place in Chicago, the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) is the one of the largest (over 110,000 attendees), most comprehensive (~2,400 exhibitors), and longest (six days) manufacturing shows conferences in the world, certainly North America. This year’s event marked IMTS’s 31st edition. First timers and long timers are overwhelmed by the sheer size of this event. At over 1.3 million square feet, you better dress comfortably and prepare for an overload of manufacturing technology sights and sounds.

Because IMTS is so comprehensive and massive, planning is everything, and as you walk around the various pavilions, you start to get a sense of trends and likely future impact of just about all of the technological aspects of design, engineering, and manufacturing.

IMTS Balloon

Below are the major manufacturing trends that I experienced this week. Starting next week I’ll detail what I considered to be the most significant technologies and products showcased at IMTS this time around. Next week, I’ll also go over the major software developments that were introduced — mostly CAM, but some significant stuff.

Quick Observation: There were definitely more women attending IMTS, which is a very good thing; but there also were more “booth babes” present on the exhibition floor, which, in my opinion, is not such a good thing.

But, on with the show . . .

Cloud-Based Systems
I was amazed at the number of browser-based applications that were on display. Everything from CAD, CAM, and CAE, to quality, inspection, and metrology.

The cloud-based concept is vital for “smart factories” and opens tremendous potential for next-generation intelligent shop floor efficiency. This involves connectivity, sensor-based manufacturing systems and industrial robots. These technologies aim to be human-centric and support efficient decision making in all stages of the manufacturing process. In addition, virtual factories integrating Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) optimize efficiency in networked, collaborative value chains.

Among other things, a cloud-based manufacturing environment supports optimized asset tracking and asset management, autonomous control, and logistics. This enables different stake holders of manufacturers to monitor and diagnose performance and secure parts quality. Ultimately, the cloud-based  approach of visualizing, analyzing and optimizing manufacturing processes, root cause effects, and process feedback to improve final parts dimension accuracy, quality, and total cost. The cloud still faces enormous challenges, such as bandwidth and security, but things seem to be moving quickly in a positive direction.

IMTS 2016 Machining Highlights

Robotics and Automation
Robotics played a huge part in many areas of the show floor and doing everything from conventional roles on mock factory floors to serving up ice cream cones.

Not at all surprisingly, the role of robots continues to offer big benefits for manufacturers according to several exhibitors at IMTS that featured robotics topics and displays, such as collaborative learning, core isolation, and setting standards.

Robots continue to gain acceptance in the manufacturing world. According to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), robotics orders set new records of 14 percent growth in 2015 as North American companies placed orders valued at $1.8 billion. By 2018, there will be 1.3 million industrial robots operating in factories around the world according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

Rapid advances in robotics continue to drive this interest. Today’s robots are lightweight, highly flexible, and easy to implement. Robots can weld, assemble, handle materials and even package food. Lower costs add to the benefits, offering new opportunities for manufacturers of all sizes.

More sophisticated technology has enabled smarter robots that can collaboratively learn and sense what is going on around them. “Collaborative robots are going strong and you will see a larger role in force sensing and control,” said Steve Somes, president, Force Robots. “Responding to external forces not only makes robots safer for collaboration, it also enables more tasks like assembly, grinding, and deburring.”

“Automation needs to move from teach-based to intent-based, meaning we communicate tasks and the robot and machines figure out how to make them happen,” said Will Sobel, CEO, System Insights. “It seems scarier and more futuristic than it is. Robots simply need to perform dynamic path planning with vision and sensors instead of static instructions.”

Another trend in robot controls, core isolation or core “splitting” in multi-core CPUs, has been made possible through advancements in PC-based control software. According to Matt Prellwitz, drive technology application specialist, Beckhoff Automation, this means that the machine controller can serve “double duty” as the robot controller, a trend that has dramatically increased efficiency and reduced costs.

The increase in multi-core CPU power and the ability to implement core isolation enables software engineers to run, for example, kinematics on one processor core and spread functions across other cores, such as PLC, motion control and HMI software. The Windows OS on these PC-based controllers can also receive its own core, meaning all machine and robot control functionality can run independently of the OS, which helps elevate performance and pushes kinematic applications to a new level.

Standards also play a key role in robotics success, safely enabling movements between locations and even allowing one or more robots to interact with the same set of equipment. “This can be handled using discovery and interaction-based location models coupled with systems for scanning an environment to learn collision domains and object placement,” said Sobel. “Semantic models for discovery and location enable robots to be used on mobile platforms when combined with limitations on velocity and force feedback without the need for security cages.”

By taking advantage of these robotics advancements to manage mundane tasks, manufacturers also gain the benefit of motivating employees with more interesting responsibilities. By taking away monotonous and repetitive tasks, manufacturers can elevate their workforce, more fully engaging them in the production process. It is hard for workers to stay motivated if they feel like “cogs in a machine.”

“We can better utilize the talent we have when robots handle the more mundane work,” adds Sobel. “There will be some processes that we cannot automate. But when we increase productivity through robots without impacting the workforce, we can move to a more efficient and larger manufacturing base.”

Model-based definition (MBD) and Quality Information Framework (QIF) were two acronyms heard from many software and even some hardware vendors. The Dimensional Metrology Standards Consortium (DMSC) demonstrated a beginning-to-end MBD workflow using QIF. The workflow incorporated CAD and GD&T (PMI) export, measurement plan creation for caliper and CMM measurements, optimized CMM measurement program generation, and advanced measurement results analysis and visualization. All data generated during the workflow was in the QIF format, and tied to the 3D model, demonstrating what the Consortium hopes is the coming of age of the Model-Based Enterprise (MBE).

3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing
Not surprisingly, 3D printing played a prominent role at IMTS 2016 — not only for what was demonstrated, but for what was demoed, but little or no details regarding cost, materials, availability, etc. Some solid substance from several vendors, but plenty of fluff and promises for the future from others.

One of the most interesting newcomers we came across was Vader Systems, LLC that unveiled its first commercial liquid metal jetting machine.

While recent years have seen many new entrants into the thermoplastic extrusion based 3D printer market, the same is not true in the metals space. Vader Systems and its MK1 Experimental metal 3D printer aim to change this with a new 3D printing technique.

The feedstock for this 3D printer is 0.09 mm wire because the cost of metal powder for bed 3D printers, where the special feedstock of spherical metal powder can prove prohibitive. Using wire means that the input cost is lowered closer to that of a commodity. The company claim the result is a 90% reduction when compared to the cost of fabricating with power bed techniques.

The company has a patent pending for its unique process called magentohydrodynamics (MHD). The MHD system uses electromagnetism to propel the metal.

The company is currently testing MHD and the MK1 experimental 3D printer with the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), its first customer who has purchased a machine.

The applications for MHD depends on the material being used. Presently, Vader Systems are working with aluminum, and its alloys. This material has applications in automotive, aerospace, and other low volume/high complexity applications. The specific aluminum alloys used are 4043, 6061, and 7075. The company plans to move to using metals that require higher temperatures to melt, including copper, brass, and gold.

Marketing material for the company lists a planned deposition rate of 5 pounds of aluminum per hour, which is very good.

Aside from the speed, part density is a critical factor in the widespread adoption of 3D printing by industry. Pores, or gaps, inside a part can lead to structural weakness and may result in the failure of a component. Vader says, “We have been telling people that it was going to be very high part density, but just recently with the early results for RIT, it turns out that we’re almost 100% dense.”

This area seemed be much larger than in years past, and for good reason. Advances in optics and metrology grade cameras have led to a new class of Large Field of View (LFOV) video measuring systems, systems that can image as much as 3 or 4 square inches of a part and make dimensional measurements instantly. There are several makers of these systems — mainly simple bench top models designed for easy use by virtually any operator. In the main, these are 2D measuring systems for thin, flat parts, and they are generally middle-grade machines in terms of accuracy. However, there are also some new models in this category that offer 3D measuring capability and high precision. These are very high-grade machines with sub-micron accuracy.

The improvements in computers and electronics over the past 5 to 10 years have raised the bar for all quality and metrology systems — especially non-contact metrology. The benchmark performance (speed and accuracy) of a video measuring system has easily doubled in the past 10 years, while the cost has remained about the same.

Recent improvements in software and analysis tools allow coordinate measurements to be compared directly to CAD models. Very complex GD&T scenarios can be evaluated just about instantly, and predictive models allow a tightly closed loop between CAD, CAM systems and dimensional measurement systems.

Educating the Future Workforce
For the past five years, Tooling U-SME, a leading provider of manufacturing training solutions, has been analyzing the manufacturing industry’s performance in addressing the nation’s mounting skills gap – and the data shows that the majority of manufacturers are not taking the necessary steps to address this impending crisis.

In 2011, Tooling U-SME created an online workforce assessment tool to find out if manufacturers were ready to meet the challenges of today’s workforce and to track their advancement over the next decade. The first five-year iteration shows little improvement in this area.

Now halfway through the project – Mission Critical: Workforce 2021 – results show far too many manufacturers are risking the success of their companies – and the industry – by not taking the necessary steps to identify the skills their workers need.

Some of the survey results include:

  • 49 percent of respondents who completed the online assessment say their company has 
not begun measuring their manufacturing employees’ current skills against the skills they 
will require in the future.
  • 76 percent say the training their company provides its manufacturing employees is not 
adequate to meet the needs of the organization going forward.

Smartforce Student Summit
Since I taught school last year, this was especially interesting to me. The Smartforce Student Summit is geared toward getting students interested in entering the manufacturing workforce through workforce readiness and searching for an internship or a job. This year, a career fair, the Smartforce Career Launch Pad for students in career & technical education programs, community colleges, and engineering schools was added.

Local Motors
IMTS partnered with Local Motors to provide the IMTS Ride Experience featuring “Olli,” the first self-driving electric vehicle equipped with IBM Watson IoT technology.Designed and built by Local Motors, Olli can carry up to 12 riders and navigated a track inside one of the halls. Limited to about 5 mph for show purposes (but capable of 25 mph), Olli uses the cloud-based cognitive computing capability of IBM Watson to analyze and learn from high volumes data produced by more than 30 sensors embedded in the vehicle, including cameras, GPS and LIDAR.

Industry 4.0 and IIoT
The Internet of Things (IoT) had a big presence this year at IMTS with a manufacturing spin – the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), especially with regard to Industry 4.0, the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution. In a growing technical and robotic manufacturing industry, technology continues to push the limits, and Industry 4.0 with IIoT are be counted on to help manufacturing companies understand the different steps to keep up with these potentially massive changes. Understanding the steps is one part, but execution is just as big, if not bigger? The key is to analyze a current situation and decide what Industry 4.0 and IIoT means to companies. Methods like MES and Lean Manufacturing provide a vital first step in this direction.

Admittedly, this show is difficult to cover just based on the huge number of products, processes, and technologies presented. I really like it, though, because there is so much to see and learn. Every time I attend IMTS, I am reminded of my late father-in-law who was a master/journeyman machinist. How cool it would have been to walk the floor with him and check out all of the enormous production machines and manufacturing technologies. Even though he was not with me physically at the event, he was still with me in memory. He, like me, would be very impressed to be among the many people who still make things for making things, a diversifying community I’m proud to be a part of.

Editor’s Note: During IMTS 2016, we recorded several video interviews while walking the floor with many of the exhibitors of interest to MCADCafe readers. These videos will be posted and available late nest week.

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