Guerrilla Research at One of the Largest Trade Shows in the World: A Quick How-To

October 6, 2014 in Notes from the Field
Sara Blumenstein
Bridget Monahan
Senior Designer & Researcher

Recently, MAYA Design conducted research for a client over two days at IMTS 2014 in Chicago. What’s IMTS? It’s the International Manufacturing Technology Show, put on by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) every two years, and it’s one of the largest industrial trade shows in the world. This year, there were more than 2,000 companies exhibiting across McCormick Place’s 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, while 114,147 registered attendees walked the trade show floor, watching demonstrations, talking to salespeople, and learning about the newest and most innovative robots, machines, controls, software, and services.

Walking the show floor was a mind-boggling experience in terms of the size and complexity of devices on display and the endless-seeming scale of the space: huge CNC lathes and mills loom over the crowds while nearby, plasma and waterjet cutters whir, robots busily spot-weld sample sheets of metal, and 3-D printers quietly work away.

Start with a flexible toolkit, and adapt on the fly

How do you undertake design research in this environment? Who do you target? How do you make sense of it all? Our mission was to intercept attendees and exhibitors and ask them a few questions about their hopes and fears for the future of their respective fields. Before we arrived at IMTS, we created a single-page note-taking form with boxes for our questions, and space to quickly indicate demographic information, like the gender and age of the interviewee. We decided to carry clipboards to hold our notes and brought no recording equipment, as negotiating those permissions would be difficult in this environment. Thinking through these kinds of logistics and planning for the tone of the engagement we wanted to strike was important, but we also had to be prepared for the fact that the show’s own unique circumstances would probably throw us off our game plan.

We were not disappointed. Walking the floor, we quickly realized that actually intercepting people as they went about their sales and networking wouldn’t work as planned. It was challenging to sustain a conversation on the show floor because of the pervasive noise of attendees (and cutting tools) milling about, which made working through the exhibit halls one by one as we had planned unfeasible. So we changed tactics. We would wander to the “off” spaces: the coffee lounges, the food areas, wherever people were sitting and taking a break. We would stay away from the busy booths and approach those exhibitors who were possibly hungrier for conversation. These spaces afforded less distraction and potentially greater willingness to answer research questions. We timed our visits to busier booths near the end of the day, when customer conversations had tapered off.

Observe patterns

We also gave ourselves time to stand back and observe the patterns. What kinds of marketing collateral and signage were visible—how were exhibitors presenting themselves? And where were people gathering—what were the attendees interested in? How did the crowds change during different times of the day, or on consecutive days of the show? Along with interviews, taking time to observe the show itself revealed much about people’s motivations.

So what did we learn?

We were asking respondents open-ended questions about the future of manufacturing, like “What do you hope happens to your field in the future?” and, correspondingly, “What do you fear happens to your field?” Our first handful of responses yielded a fair number of seemingly general reactions, where “hopes” meant growth, and “fear” meant an economic downturn. When we dug a bit deeper, responses ranged from concerns close to the shop floor, like knowing when to invest in new equipment and how to diversify a customer base, to concerns about international competition and workforce development.

What were people hopeful about? New markets and new technologies. Even people from traditional machine shops were excited to understand—and kick the tires of—additive manufacturing companies, which had a much larger presence at IMTS 2014 than in previous years. We spoke with the CEO of a small shop who believes that additive manufacturing is going to change the sector; even though it doesn’t have immediate applicability for his enterprise, he’s excited about it as a vehicle to change how people in manufacturing think. Likewise, the majority of people we spoke with regarded innovation as necessary to survival, and many had come to IMTS test out a path forward.

Ultimately, we came away from IMTS with good data and interesting stories. By keeping an eye on what we hoped to learn, and remaining flexible enough to adapt as our plans evolved on the fly, we were able to take a small snapshot that encompassed exhibitors and attendees, salespeople and engineers, and large and small companies. As outsiders to manufacturing, it was a noisy, mind-bending, and very human introduction to the domain.

Photo courtesy of AMT / Oscar & Associates

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