In the middle of a huge, thriving trade show, it seems fitting to ponder the future of this type of event.
Thirty years from now, will shows be obsolete, done in by virtual exhibits on DVDs or beamed directly to your plant floor via the Internet?
We don't think so. The managers, engineers and technicians who buy plastics products enjoy the gee-whiz features of leading-edge technology that will make virtual shows possible. But they're also dedicated tire-kickers. It's tough to imagine them spending a couple hundred grand on new machinery without a chance to see the things actually running first.
Trade shows also give them a chance to network, to get a sense of what direction the industry is heading, and to get a taste of new products and technology.
Plus quite a few just seem to like coming to Chicago.
That said, don't be surprised when the trade show of 2030 looks a lot different from this 2000 version.
First of all, expect it to have a much more international flavor. That trend is beginning already: The number of visitors from outside the United States who had preregistered for NPE 2000 by May 5 already was five times that of the same date for the 1997 show. As trade and cultural barriers come down and business becomes truly global, watch for the number of international visitors to skyrocket.
Second, look for new technology and innovation in unexpected places. Think about it: If you could put your machine operators from 1970 into a time machine and put them in front of a 2000-model processing machine, they could figure out most of the basic improvements in about 10 minutes. A lot of the materials and processes used in the plastics industry today haven't changed a whole lot in the past 30 years.
But plenty has changed: who you buy products from, and how; the way you control and measure your production; software to help tweak your work and keep it profitable; plus lots of help creating a paper or electronic record of your process.
Other changes are bound to come — the tough part is predicting exactly where.
Finally, expect many trade shows to be affected by outside forces that will change the face of the North American plastics industry.
Look, for example, at how Germany's industry has been influenced by its 1991 Packaging Ordinance: Consumption of all types of packaging has dropped.
Or at Mexico's plastics industry, where the North American Free Trade Agreement is encouraging firms to look beyond their border, boost capacity and improve technology to serve the larger regional market.
What other changes are on the way? We'll look for larger, more-successful trade shows in places like Mexico, India and China. We'll watch to see how air-pollution regulations affect manufacturers' decisions on where to put new plants.
And most important, we suggest you watch for those hot new markets that will drive growth in plastics processing, and keep track of which ones either fade away or move offshore in the coming years.