An Eye-Opening Experience

MSR students were among more than 125,000 registrants at the International Manufacturing Technology Show.

This robot from IMTS has the power and strength to lift a full-size car.

The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) is a one-of-a-kind experience, and the incoming class of students in Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program discovered that firsthand this past September.

Consider these numbers from the 2018 IMTS, all of which were record-breaking numbers for the show:

  • 129,415 registrants
  • 2,563 exhibiting companies
  • 2,123 booths
  • 1,424,232 square feet of exhibit space

MSR students Ben Don and Mark Dyehouse looked back on the experience and what they learned from the opportunity.

What impressed you most about IMTS?

BD: I saw quite a bit of interesting vision-based inspection systems (cameras + intelligent software) used for detecting flaws in uniquely shaped manufactured products. It seemed like this is where AI techniques can really shine, since Pass/Fail criteria can continue to evolve even after the automated system is deployed, without adding any expensive capital to the test system. On a more person-to-person level, many of the staff members at the booths were very open to discussions about more than just the products they were selling. I was excited to talk with systems integrators about a day in the life, and even get a demo of building some software for a PLC (programmable logic controller) from scratch.

MD: What impressed me most about IMTS was the scale. I was really impressed that so many companies and groups are taking such a serious interest in the ways robotics and adjacent fields can be utilized to make better products and make them cheaper and at larger scale.

What surprised you about IMTS?

BD: There were lots of articulated robot arms, even at booths that didn't actually sell robots. It seems like having some level of robotics experience is becoming a requirement to stay relevant in manufacturing.

MD: It was really interesting for me to get to see how challenges we deal with or will deal with in academia are viewed and treated in industry, and it definitely helped put in perspective what it takes in order to get robotic solutions into the field. It also helped us to see some points where robotics are not being utilized to their full potential, so we were able to see how we might be able to better contribute in the future to how these companies are working with the tools we provide them, and how we can provide better tools (or convince them that one tool is better than another).

How would you describe the scene of IMTS?

BD: A multi-level, multi-room maze of every type of manufacturing tool, from CNC mills & lathes, conveyor systems, to robotic arms (one of which was moving an automobile through the air). Then there were product integrators who showed off their various types of turnkey manufacturing solutions using a combination of all those products. Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), and AI seemed to be the key terms of the year. Overall, the event was exciting and definitely worth a trip to anybody interested in learning more about the state-of-the-art for 'pick and place'/'part tending' robotics in manufacturing.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MD: This was helpful as an intro to MSR because it gave perspective that allows us to see where our future developments might be needed and what some of the big themes or challenges are. Our eyes were opened in a lot of ways.