I’m reflecting back on my positive experience last month in Florida at the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association inaugural trade show. It was a very small event in the manufacturing community, especially compared to the SME shows, IMTS and other mammoth events. Most of my discussions about trade shows the last few years have been about their demise. However, this past weekend has reminded me of why they are so important, and why I hope they don’t end up solely on Facebook and YouTube.

Since I’ve been in manufacturing and engineering for most of my career, I’ve also been attending trade shows as long as I can remember. My first high school drafting award was tied to an SME event. I was usually ahead of the curve on the latest technology in my welding system days, due to my attendance at regional shows. I first met Lloyd Graff at a PMPA show in Ohio. In 2012, I had an encouraging chat with AMT President Doug Woods at the IMTS show about the economy and my own shop. These are all meager milestones in my manufacturing career.

The ‘Made In SWFL’ show April 16th reminded me of how important those experiences have been and should be to a future generation of manufacturers. The morning session opened with a presentation to over 300 STEM students. Brian Rist, of Storm Smart Industries talked to them about what it takes to be a great employee. After an exercise by SRMA CEO Betsy Allen, I was invited to speak to the students about the scope of manufacturing today, and the possibilities open to them in the future.

My story is like most in the machining world. My grandfather worked for Ford, another worked for Packard and eventually had his own multi-spindle machines. My father worked for Lionel trains, and I benefitted from all of it. When I look around, there’s so much potential right now for those who love to make things and who know the pride associated with it. Trying to explain that to a crowd of today’s young people, and where that fits into their virtual world was challenging and exhilarating.

Later, as the hundreds of students and visitors passed by the booth, I watched them put their cell phones in their pockets. They asked me how my broaching tools worked, and I put them in their hands. I’ve been working with Doug Gyure from S4J Manufacturing for years now, but it was the first time I’ve actually held his Luer Lock connectors in my hands. I inspected a high-wheel Sarlo Mower, made by an 80 year old Fort Myers, FL company right around the corner from me. Shaw Development, awarded Manufacturer of the Year at the show, also had a great display of their Fluid System products.

The combination of nearly 50 vendors unrelated in their narrow vertical markets, but tied together simply because of manufacturing was a refreshing and exciting thing to see. Although Southwest Florida is known more for its beaches and less for its technology, I’m sure every community would benefit from some ‘Sharing’ and ‘Likes’ not related to the electronic channels we’re all squeezed into online. It was such a great experience to talk face-to-face to young people, colleagues, competitors and customers, away from the computer and the office, but in the original virtual workspace, the trade show.

I hope the events I’m attending later this year can turn out as positive. I travelled to Hardinge’s HMTS open house show last week with similar results, and we’re exhibiting Polygon Solution’s rotary broaching tools for the first time at IMTS in September. I’m also participating in Manufacturing Day activities in October for the third year in a row. I think manufacturers big and small must continue to find ways to connect with each other and our future workforce in person, and not pass up the chance we have now to talk together face-to-face.