I attended IMTS 2012 last month in Chicago, and of all that I’ve been to – each one since 1996 – this was, by far, the best. Ever.

Maybe it has as much to do with the fact that, considering where we’ve been recently, anything beyond a poke in the eye with a sharp stick would’ve been an improvement. But I don’t think that has much to do with what I saw and heard.

There were many unique qualities to IMTS 2012, but few deserve a mention more than the ‘coming out’ party for Social Media. And that’s as much for what it didn’t do, as much as for what it did.

Here’s a look at my observations about the 2012 show, and where Social Media are at in the manufacturing sector.

I’m not even sure where to begin with the accolades. AMT, the show’s host, is pushing the limits (again) for trade show interaction and information accessibility. Not to mention their impressive overall stewardship as ambassadors for US manufacturing.

  • Attendance at IMTS2012 broke 100,000 (and not by a little) for the first time since IMTS 2000, when attendance was 114,000+. (At IMTS 2002, attendance plummeted to 85,000 and some change.) This is a very big deal, and it speaks as much to an optimistic US manufacturing base as it does to AMT’s extraordinary ability to rock the swarf out of a show, yo.
  • While purely anecdotal, I can tell you that I haven’t seen as much optimism from so many disparate businesses and groups in years. All facets of manufacturing – OEMs, builders, service providers, consumables, tooling, distributors, publishers, associations, suppliers, shops – were positively electric with enthusiasm.
  • The ‘T’ in IMTS stands for technology, and there were many hopeful signs of amazing, evolving tools that have the potential to redefine manufacturing as we know it. 3D Printing – with a small presence in the Emerging Technology Center just a few shows ago – has moved to its rightful place on the exhibition show floor with other legacy technologies. MTConnect is continuing to grow into an adoptable, invaluable networking platform. Automation, machining technologies, cutting tools, software – everyone had new products and technologies to show, which added even more weight to the optimistic vibe.
  • IMTSTV – the remarkably well-executed, multi-media broadcast channel that aired throughout the show – has become a valuable communications tool for everyone at IMTS, as well as a wellspring of information for use by all manufacturers after the show. Watch for legacy programming to be posted soon on IMTS.com.

But, in my view, one of the most startling of the many notable events was the engagement – and lack thereof – of Social Media at IMTS 2012.

Social Media ‘debuted’ at this IMTS in earnest, giving both attendees and exhibitors a new, emerging channel through which they could connect, inform, or collaborate. IMTS’ Social Media Center offered free computer use, welcomed chairs to rest in, and one of the ubiquitous #IMTS Twitter Feed monitors for those that just wanted to chill rather than participate.

But something was missing.

I know from my many years in communications that you need 3 things for any basic system to work effectively. You must have a transmitter or sender. You must have a medium to deliver the message. And you must have a receiver.

At IMTS2012, the first two were prominent and prevalent. What was missing was a critical mass of receivers – there just weren’t many people ‘listening’ via Social Media at IMTS2012.

I saw, first hand, many examples of this divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have no interests.’ For starters, attendance at many general sessions that were strongly pumped via Social Media was anemic. Also, many exhibitor-sponsored events or sessions promoted via SM channels got more walk-up traffic than responses via Twitter or other SM channels. I know, because I asked.

Social Media adoption at IMTS, I believe, was a microcosm of its overall adoption challenges within manufacturing in general.

  • Many larger companies (exhibitors) with the wherewithal have committed themselves to Social Media at varying degrees. And that commitment is, primarily, to promote the company and its products.
  • But smaller companies (attendees) seem to see Social Media as a waste of time and resources, and they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. Right now, there’s a lot more ‘waiting’ than there is ‘seeing.’

If Social Media adoption mimics adoption of the Web back in the mid-90s – and I believe it will – it’s going to take some time for the ‘receivers’ to reach critical mass & give the ‘senders’ the overall value they expect from such a commitment.

At the moment, the risk is that during this time of adoption and learning either side determines that there’s not value at all.

That would be a big mistake. Social Media and their evolving opportunities are already generating some value for manufacturing. Let’s just hope that by IMTS 2014, no one’s given up too soon.