10/02/2014 09:10 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Manufacturing's New Virtuous Cycle

The bellboy at my hotel said it all last week. He told me there wasn't a hotel room to be found in the city of Chicago, and many suburban hotels were sold out, too. He seemed a bit surprised: All of this for a manufacturing show?!

Yes, with attendance at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) topping 114,000, it's clear that we've entered a new era of cutting-edge manufacturing technology that is ready to change the global economy in new ways. FABTECH 2014, to be held Nov. 11-13 in Atlanta, also promises to be a blowout.

Larry Stockline, CEO of Promess, a Metro Detroit-based company that specializes in advanced monitoring and motion systems, told me that this was easily "the best IMTS of all time." His sentiment was echoed everywhere I went, except for maybe a few folks who were getting a little nervous about some of their older manufacturing technologies being displaced by all-new processes, such as additive manufacturing or 3D printing.

In any case, I'm going to call it as I see it: We have entered a virtuous cycle in North American manufacturing. An influx of advanced manufacturing technologies has leveled the playing field on labor costs. We're now competing on other factors, such as talent, materials, logistics and old-fashioned goodies, like strategy. These are driving old and new manufacturing work back home. And the more the supply chain comes back, the more others see and believe in the business case for these new technologies. It's a system that is reinforcing itself.

Who would have ever guessed -- after bleeding millions of manufacturing jobs for decades -- that we'd be here? No wonder folks were downright ecstatic at the show!

Here are some exciting tidbits our team here at Advanced Manufacturing Media picked up at the show:

  • Modig Machine Tool, a 70-year-old Swedish company that made the first commercial high-speed machining center in 1987 and is established in global aerospace circles, is coming to America for the first time. It's opening a US operation in Chicago this year.
  • Germany's EMAG, which makes a variety of machines, said you can now use its advanced equipment to build a complete automotive transmission on just three modular machines. One automaker is already using it.
  • Sandvik, the Swedish tool company, showed off its Adveon digital tool library, using standard tooling language that could revolutionize how quickly CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing, programs are built out with tooling. It brings an Amazon-store like flavor to tool selection and everybody is welcome to contribute tooling data.
  • Big Kaiser, meanwhile, showed off some gorgeous Speroni tool presetting systems from Italy, which use software and vision systems to measure and set tools in new ways. So, yes, even the tool presetters are in the digital communication matrix now for the digital factory of the future.

All of this revolutionary technology -- and, yes, a lot of it can credibly use the "R" word -- isn't just at the high end of the market either. Take Mazak, which showed off a new mill-turn in its Universal Series, at the value end of the market, that shows innovative thinking in a new turret design. Chuck Birkle, VP of sales and marketing, told me that it shows innovation is really springing up at all ends of the manufacturing technology market.

If you still have some anxiety about learning the new technologies being layered onto older processes, or all-new technologies, know that you're not alone. The technology providers know that it's out there, and they're offering more application support than ever. Doosan Infracore, for example, unveiled a new service commitment at the show across its entire product line.

Also keep in mind: With this much change underfoot, you have to be on top of your game, learning and assessing how this manufacturing world is changing fast. If you don't keep up now, chances are good that you won't benefit from this new cycle of change.

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