Manufacturing Takes Center Stage at IMTS 2008

17 Sep, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

I just returned from spending a few days at the biggest and best manufacturing technology extravaganza in North America: the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS 2008). The show, held in even-numbered years at McCormick Place in Chicago, runs nearly a full week and is organized and sponsored by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT).

IMTS 2008, the 27th of these events, posted its strongest attendance since 2000. Total registration for the six-day event, September 8-13, was 92,450. As impressive were the 1,803 exhibiting companies that occupied 1,233,878 square feet of exhibit space.

A fascinating aspect of this show is that, regardless of their products' size, the machine vendors ship, set up, and run the machines on the carpeted show floor. It can be a bit noisy, but is a sharp and exciting contrast to the staid Web meetings that have become the standard method for demonstrating software. Some of these machines are so large, in fact, that they are capable of handling and processing billets of steel measured in meters and thousands of kilograms.

Attendance figures were impressive for this year's IMTS.

The exhibit floor is enormous and it requires several days to take it all in, although most attendees have specific areas of interest. To help guide attendees to vendors efficiently, the exhibits are organized in pavilions that are geared toward specific industries and technologies:

  • abrasive machining/sawing/finishing
  • controls and CAD/CAM
  • EDM
  • gear generation
  • machine components/cleaning/environmental
  • metal cutting
  • metal forming and fabricating/lasers
  • quality assurance
  • tooling and workholding systems

As you can see, there is literally a lot of ground to cover with the myriad technologies and processes on display. So let's walk the floor a bit.

This complex and enormous robot illustrates the advanced production techniques on display at IMTS.

One of the most impressive machine exhibits was a bank of Fanuc Robotics America intelligent welding robots effortlessly manipulating and welding what appeared to be an automotive chassis in a mock automated manufacturing cell (see photograph).

CAM Dominates Software Exhibits
On the software side, some CAD (actually very little) was exhibited, but mostly CAM products were shown. As a matter of fact, CAD/CAM software was lumped together in a pavilion with controllers and some reverse engineering/inspection scanning equipment, and that is where I spent most of my time.

Although many of the vendors showed improvements to feature recognition and ease of use, here are some of the CAM vendors I found most interesting:

Delcam had at least a dozen demonstration stations in its booth to show its comprehensive range of CAM systems: PowerMILL for high-speed and five-axis machining; FeatureCAM for feature-based milling, turning and wire EDM; PartMaker for Swiss-type lathes; and ArtCAM for routing and engraving. Delcam also had about 40 of its technical partners among the exhibitors throughout the pavilion, including suppliers of machine tools, cutting tools, and inspection equipment. FeatureCAM 2009 was particularly interesting because it supports mill-turn equipment with the ability to complete parts in a single set-up on one machine instead of having to use multiple setups on different pieces of equipment. FeatureCAM 2009 development focused on the more complex machines, such as those with multiple turrets and/or multiple spindles.

DP Technology debuted its Parasolid-based ESPRIT 2009 product line at IMTS 2008. The FreeForm 5-axis composite machining cycle in ESPRIT 2009 lets users independently define a machining pattern and tool orientation that will be used when creating the simultaneous 5-axis tool path and includes 20 different machining strategies (cycles) in one package. The new ESPRIT composite machining cycle provides the ability to perform simultaneous 5-axis machining for a wide variety of different parts through one user interface. The products I saw demonstrated at IMTS all looked user friendly with nice UIs and well-documented, meaning that they are probably relatively easy to learn and use. This is important because while most vendors won't admit it, the learning curve for most competing CAM products is typically a year or more.

Mastercam X3 Mill was first shown at IMTS 2008 and is available in four levels, providing different levels of capabilities at different prices. This helps ensure that you get just what you need at a more reasonable price than being forced to purchase a product that contains features you'll never use. I thought the most significant enhancement to Mastercam X3 Mill was what the company calls feature-based machining (FBM) that virtually eliminates manual feature identification for programming milling and drilling operations on parts. The FBM Mill operations automatically create the toolpaths needed to machine features that are identified using specific requirements criteria. Although other vendors do have feature-based machining implementations, I thought Mastercam's approach was the most unique and approachable.

SolidCAM 2008 R12 is a SolidWorks add-in that works directly from within the SoildWorks interface, so that can shorten the learning curve from the functional standpoint. If you're already a SolidWorks user, the GUI advantages should be obvious because all machining operations can be defined, calculated, and verified from within the SolidWorks assembly environment. In a single SolidCAM part, several SolidWorks configurations (different versions or iterations of a basic assembly) can be used to represent an independent state or production step needed to produce that different part. Also, 2D and 3D geometry used in SolidCAM is associative to SolidWorks design models, meaning that when you change a SolidWorks model, all data relating to that design change are automatically reflected and updated on the CAM side.

VX Corp. showed a number of new and enhanced milling capabilities in VX Machinist Version 13. It does the things you'd expect from a 2- and 3-axis, such as stock removal and surface finishing, but I found the unique aspect of the software to be its SmoothFlow technology. It's a machining process simulator that reduces roughing operation times and minimizes cutting tool wear and breakage because SmoothFlow optimizes tool engagement with the stock material. It can handle complex curves and surfaces, and cleans out milled corners and pockets without taking full-width cuts. After the machining process has been simulated, optimized, and verified, VX Machinist can output CNC VX Post for ASCII CL or G-code directly to a wide variety of milling machines.

The number of attendees and the products and processes exhibited at IMTS 2008 was encouraging for the future of manufacturing technologies and of the manufacturing industry itself.

The dates for the next IMTS are September 13-18, 2010. If you have anything at all to do with manufacturing and production, this is an event not to miss!

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