IMTS Must-Sees: Robots, Data Visualization, and Hybrid Manufacturing – September 10, 2014 – The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) is fully underway in Chicago, and a few trends have surfaced at the show that will affect the machining business. Here are some of the most notable ones, which ThomasNet News will cover in more detail here in the near future. IMTS began at McCormick Place on Sept. 8 and will conclude on Sept. 13.

Trend No. 1: Data Interpretation

Machinery and equipment suppliers are sounding the need for machine shops to adopt software and tools that collect and translate the huge amounts of data generated by production processes and controls into actionable intelligence. Among the forms with which this trend is crystallizing is real-time views of process conditions in key areas, such as machine utilization and part loading and unloading. One company with a product in this area is Makino, whose MPmax (Machine Productivity Maximizer) software analyzes data in real time and displays results that alert operators to problems.

The software isn’t new — it’s been commercial for three years — but it continues to evolve, says Mark Rentschler, Makino’s marketing manager. At its show booth, Makino presented MPmax results on flat-screen displays with color-coded graphics that tracked how its machines at the show and at its headquarters in Mason, Ohio, were running.

Expect more hardware and software suppliers to release such data tools. Other companies showcasing digital data visualization and capabilities at IMTS include machine tool maker DMG Mori, cutting tool producer Kennametal, and machine networking expert Memex Automation.

Trend No. 2: The Democratization of Automation

I noted this trend last week on ThomasNet News, in reference to the Motion, Drive and Automation North America show that is co-located with IMTS in the East building of McCormick Place. Automation, notably robotics, has been a mainstay of large operations for some time. Recently, automation for smaller companies has intensified, as shops learn about the productivity and quality advantages of robots as well as advances in robotics, such as more intuitive robots, robot arms, and collaborative robots. Most important, the cost and simplicity of robots and automation equipment is now well within reach for smaller manufacturers.

Many booths at IMTS have robots on display, integrated with machine tools and tending work cells. Some feature low-cost systems that are no more difficult to program and run than a smartphone, and which are as effective for most operations as far costlier and higher-tech versions. Simple robots may be a niche now but could become mainstream by the next IMTS in 2016. Some players in this field are Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics.

Trend No. 3: Hybrid “Additive + Subtractive” Manufacturing

Specifically the combination of additive manufacturing (3D printing) and milling is about to take the marketplace by storm. A handful of IMTS exhibitors were spotted on opening day with hybrid machines. These can produce prototypes, tooling, and low-volume parts via additive manufacturing (AM) followed by milling to finish the parts on a single platform.

Hybrid manufacturing may not gain wide use for a while, but it represents a step forward in the ongoing development of AM as a viable production process that complements machining. The consistent mantra being professed at IMTS is that additive manufacturing is not eliminating traditional subtractive manufacturing but is rather ready to be leveraged as a supportive technology and a new revenue generator even by small job shops.

One example that highlights hybrid additive and machining is, in fact, the centerpiece of the advanced manufacturing exhibits at IMTS: the live production of a concept car where AM parts will be finished with milling.

As reported in July here at ThomasNet News, Local Motors of Chandler, Ariz., revealed the electric car concept for urban driving, called the Strati, after holding an open design competition. The participants behind the car project intend for the Strati to be assembled and driven around McCormick Place before the end of the show.

Production of the Strati began on Sept. 7 in the Emerging Technology Center in the North building, using an extrusion-based AM process developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Chad Duty, group leader of deposition science and technology at the government facility, told me on opening day that ORNL modified a laser-cutting machine produced by Cincinnati Inc., of Harrison, Ohio, for the project, replacing the laser with an AM deposition head.

Cincinnati wants to commercialize a line of AM machines. The unit that is building the Strati at IMTS, the initial result of the joint effort between ORNL and Cincinnati, has, in fact, already been sold to resin producer Sabic Innovative Plastics for almost $1 million.

Duty says the machine, called the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system, has a work area of 2 by 4 by 0.87 m (6.5 by 13.1 by 2.8 ft) and is probably the largest extrusion-based AM system in the world. It is building the Strati’s body, layer by layer, out of 15-to-20-percent carbon fiber-reinforced ABS polymer from Sabic.

One feature of the BAAM is deposition speed. The machine builds parts at a rate of 500 to 1,000 cu-in/hr, Duty says, using about 30 to 50 lb/hr of material. The baseline deposition rate for most AM processes is 1 to 5 cu-in/hr, he notes. Conventional AM materials can be expensive — $50 to $100/lb in some cases. The BAAM model uses standard resin pellets that cost $1 to $5/lb.

A problem that remains to be resolved with BAAM is low resolution; surfaces are not smooth or finely detailed. After the Strati body is built, it will be transferred to a CNC machine for finish milling.

Duty expects the issue of resolution to eventually be resolved. He sees the BAAM system gaining use in the rapid tooling market, among others, for its relative speed and low product cost.

However, most talk at IMTS is centered around the fact that AM is not yet sophisticated enough to produce parts without the need for secondary processing and traditional finishing operations, hence the new breed of hybrid machines. Among other machinery suppliers with hybrid manufacturing machines are DMG Mori and Millennium Machinery.

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