Why go to trade shows?

Every time I say I’m going to a trade show I am questioned about it: “Ugh, such a hassle”, “But there’s lots of people!”, “The food is terrible!”, “Really? They’re pointless”, and my favorite: “Boring, they’re always the same”. So I thought I should do a quick post about my reasons for going to and really enjoying  technology and manufacturing trade shows.

All of us live in bubbles. Some people’s bubbles are larger than others, but all bubbles nonetheless. This is what happens when you choose a profession, and within that profession, an industry. Your job becomes more specific and with that, everything that surrounds your job (supply chain, materials, processes, people, consultants, investors, etc) follows suit. 

This is perfectly fine and is a natural result of making life choices. But becoming a specialist doesn’t necessarily means you should also allow everything else surrounding you to become particular and specific to the very same topic you work on.

Bringing the conversation to my world, cross-pollination of technologies is, just as in nature, one of the greatest phenomena that can happen to achieve the most powerful results. We see it all the way from teams -where multi-disciplinary groups of people can achieve better and faster results than single-discipline groups- to companies (engineering firms meet sales and commercialization) and whole industries (automation and applied robotics).

There are many different ways to achieve cross-pollination, but the simplest and most direct way to do it is to fill a room with people of all disciplines and origins like with Hackatons. Who doesn’t love a well planned and ran hackaton? Trade shows are basically the same, but on steroids.

Trade shows pack buildings full of different people, companies and even industries with the goal of having all of us get to meet each other, learn from each other, network, compare, and collaborate. But it goes even farther than that, sure it also gives room for showing off, but for me this means learning how other people are trying to solve the same problems I’m in, but from a different perspective and with a different set of rules.

This requires observation, and talking to lots of people. Asking honest questions to the right person (usually the engineer) will help you learn loads in just a few minutes. What are they trying to achieve? Why do they do it that way? And sometimes more importantly: how do they do it?

As an example, in my world the usual vendors promise machining tolerances of +/- 0.005″ as the standard, so everything is designed to account for that. Over time your mind tends to consider that as the norm, and anything with higher precision is deemed too complicated, expensive, and even impossible. Yet taking a peek into parallel industries (say, go talk with a tool maker for punching machines), shows that there is a whole world of machinists and fabricators that are perfectly fine working with tolerances of +/-0.0001″ (order of magnitude!).

You’re then faced with the fact that your bubble is not enabling but limiting you when other machine designers show that things can actually be simple in function and high in accuracy,  just by having good (better) quality manufacturing. No need for crazy compliant assemblies and large clearances to allow for motion. 

Well, you should get better machinists!

Kennametal engineer

When you have access to that kind of manufacturing quality, the standards, books and charts start to make sense: +0″ -.0007″ for your fit? No problem! #8 surface finish? All day long. And even though I only mention one example, there’s plenty like it. So attending trade shows like @FabtechExpo or @IMTSchicago (among others) is refreshing, eye opening, and absolutely mind blowing. I leave the floor with my mind fully revved up, with tons of new ideas, and knowing that it’s all possible with the right manufacturing partner. 

This way, as you can see, I greatly benefit as a design engineer from going to these shows and having my bubble burst. From seeing the newest of the new, the greatest of the great, the best of the best, but also the cheapest of the cheap. Seeing so many examples of similar but different machines, mechanisms, tools, materials, software, and solution approaches to equivalent problems is like a palate cleansing sherbet for my brain. I come back to my world with a whole new understanding of whats possible and how to achieve it, and motivated to tackle old, current and new problems with this new mindset.

So, is it worth it? Yes, 100% worth it. Should you try to attend to your industry’s trade shows? Yes, absolutely!

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