Emerging Technology Continues to Excite

Having just returned from IMTS as I sit to write this month's column, I thought I'd reflect back on some of the really cool stuff I saw at this year's show.

The technology keeps moving forward, which makes it easier for the artists to tell their stories and paint the pictures they want.
—George Lucas

Much of the technology we look at in the pages of Production Machining isn’t particularly surprising to our readers. We’re always looking for new ways to perform operations more efficiently, but many developments, while very useful and important, are often subtle improvements. They’re certainly worth taking note of and considering for implementation, but they won’t necessarily take the world by storm.

Less often, we come across some new technology that is rooted in an entirely different approach to accomplishing our final goals. These ideas hint at the potential to revolutionize the way we do things. Game changing ideas have been generated since the dawn of man. Some would say we’re running out of room for such drastic recasting of procedures. It does seem that technology would slow down at some point, but man continues to amaze.

We can find extreme technological changes in many areas of life. Remember the emergence of the microwave oven, the cell phone and the internet? In the world of manufacturing, it’s the big trade shows that offer the most common setting for revealing these new ideas. Having just returned from IMTS as I sit to write this month’s column, I thought I’d reflect back on some of the really cool stuff I saw at this year’s show, as well as shows past.

While I’m not old enough to have witnessed the introduction of numerical control to machine tools, my first visit to IMTS in 1988 allowed me to see firsthand the momentum of CNC and the impact it was having on the automation and efficiency of the production process. This was certainly a technology that everyone had their eye on, and it continues to leave its mark on the shop floor today.

Shops are always on the lookout for other ideas that will make a huge difference. When robots hit the shop floor, along with other workhandling concepts, they changed the way machines are loaded and unloaded. This technology continues to develop and become more noteworthy, along with other forms of automation that are helping shops get the most out of their existing personnel while dealing with the limited supply of skilled labor. It’s an important trend that is making a difference to the viability of manufacturing operations, both here and around the world.

Each year, there seems to be a new hot topic. Some of these ideas take longer than others to find their true niche in the industry, but when a large interest develops, they’re likely here to stay. Two years ago, additive manufacturing was in the limelight at IMTS, and it continued to garner much attention at this year’s show. Many people like to debate its usefulness and practical application. While some may have thought it would eventually take the place of traditional subtractive manufacturing, the consensus now is on the side of viewing additive as a complementary process. In that role, its momentum is quickly building.

Data-driven manufacturing is another technology that is rapidly growing and finding new areas of application. This concept is being applied to so many different areas of the industry, from the machine tools themselves to automation to tool optimization, helping shops make better decisions about their manufacturing processes. Data collected from connected machines and accessories is used to refine production times, quality and efficiency. I’m not sure why I was surprised to see that cutting tool manufacturers can now offer sensor equipped tools that allow shops to adjust, control and monitor machining performance in real time. The development of exchangeability standards such as MT Connect have facilitated the ability to gather this information and apply it in meaningful ways. Companies are also taking the necessary cybersecurity steps to provide products that safeguard proprietary information that is shared among interconnected devices.

As new ideas are developed, they take hold in their own way, helping manufacturers refine their craft, providing high quality parts more efficiently. I can’t wait to watch how these current emerging technologies shape the future of the shop floor, and I’m excited to see what new ideas come to the forefront in the coming years.