Sometimes you wonder if North American metal manufacturers got the memo.
Europe is struggling with countries teetering on the brink of financial collapse. China is no longer seeing its GDP grow by double-digit percentage points. Other once-hot economies in the world, such as Brazil, have cooled considerably. Meanwhile in the U.S., unemployment remains above 8 percent, and economists fret that the federal government may be headed off a "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year, when automatic budget cuts take place and Bush-era tax cuts end.
So what happened as the International Manufacturing Technology Show 2012 opened in Chicago on Sept. 10? Show organizers announced that they were expecting its most well-attended show since 2002. (Preregistration alone stood at 86,000.) Simultaneously, AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology announced that U.S. manufacturing technology orders in July were up 5.4 percent overall compared with the same time in 2011. U.S. manufacturers continue to move forward no matter what craziness occurs around them.
With that in mind, it was fitting to see the folks from Local Motors working on its Rally Fighter car right in the entrance to the North Building of McCormick Place. The team hoped to finish constructing the vehicle by the time the show closed on Sept.15.
The company itself is not just a custom car manufacturer. Jay Rogers, Local Motors' president, CEO, and founder, said his company's car designs result from "crowd sourcing," taking design ideas from a virtual community of would-be Henry Fords. In fact, the Rally Fighter design, which is built upon steel-tube frames and with composite body panels, came from an art school student.
"It's an open-sourced car, but it comes from DIY roots," the Harvard-educated Rogers told an IMTS crowd on the opening day of the show.
Such is manufacturing today. Rogers called his company's approach to manufacturing—and eventually sales and servicing of its cars—"disruptive" when compared to the current way automobiles are designed, built, sold, and serviced. Manufacturers are similarly facing challenging times, particularly as they struggle to maintain high levels of productivity without adding labor cost. In a way, these metal manufacturers are being challenged to embrace "disruptive" technologies of their own. IMTS featured several examples:
- Dozuki showed off its multimedia platform for mobile media that the company hopes one day will be the go-to choice for manufacturers looking to convert work instructions and accompanying graphics for display on tablet devices or even mobile phones. Early beta users created their own step-by-step guides on top of the Dozuki framework, including video in some cases, and later placed portable computing devices next to machine tools, so users could take in instructions right there or take the tablets with them. Bruce Klickstein, the company's vice president of business development, said one manufacturer of airplane seats witnessed the potential impact of the tool with new trainees. Traditionally trained employees were able to install seats in a fuselage in about 55 minutes after three to six weeks of training; employees without the same training but with access to the tablet instructions were able to do the same task in a little over an hour.
- The Lincoln Electric Co. shared its CheckPoint™ weld production monitoring system with show attendees. Keeping track of the performance of welding power sources and cells is not so much a new thing; but having access to that information through the "cloud," which in this case is the Internet, is. A supervisor or manager can access equipment performance information with a smart phone, tablet, or computer through a Web browser and without the need for special software. Information on weld performance details, wire feed usage, and voltage is available in real-time, allowing management to keep tabs on important welding jobs or collect auditing information for quality programs.
- Coordinate measuring machines aren't anything new, but the scanning power that these units have nowadays really allows a fab shop to flex its engineering muscles through redesign or reengineering activities. A good example is the Romer Absolute Arm with an integrated scanner that is capable of capturing 50,000 points per second, almost a 40 percent improvement over the previous generation of technology. The unit has a battery with a run-time of about two hours and has room for two batteries.
At the very least, these types of technologies and others on display at IMTS have the potential to keep metal manufacturers ahead of the competitors down the street and around the world. As Dr. Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, told attendees during opening day remarks, U.S. manufacturers are on a roll in recent years, pushing manufacturing output up 20 percent since 2009 and increasing manufacturing exports 36 percent between 2009 and 2011. Investment in new technology is one true way to ensure that manufacturers continue on the path to increased productivity—and hopefully profitability. That's the plan for many companies, no matter what bad news may be found in the morning headlines.