I admit it: I like trade shows, especially big ones like NPE.

I admit it: I like trade shows, especially big ones like NPE. Where else do you get to see so much new stuff from so many companies, countries, continents in one place? The opportunity to stumble onto some fascinating invention from a firm you never heard of is . . . priceless. Even after five days on the show floor, I think to myself: I wish this would last another week so I could see everything!

Two pernicious trends threaten to sap some of the pleasure of exploring those miles of aisles. Materials suppliers have drifted away from shows. Some said a bag of resin isn’t much to look at. But I miss their displays of new applications and processing technologies and the latest results of chemical innovation. Worse yet, some machine builders recently decided they don’t need to bring actual machines to a show—maybe just pictures or videos or a conference area are enough to make one travel to Chicago.

I’m relieved to report some hopeful signs at NPE 2006. First, Cincinnati Milacron, which promulgated the theory of machine-less machinery exhibits at NPE 2003, seems to have changed its mind. It brought lots of hefty hardware and eye-catching demos of “hot” technologies like in-mold assembly, auto glazing, and RFID labeling. HPM brought no machines this year, but I saw no evidence that the idea will catch on.

Second, Dow Plastics confirmed my suspicion that materials suppliers are not drifting so far away after all, but are drawn back by the exhibit halls’ huge magnetic effect on potential customers. Even when they don’t exhibit, some resin makers look for ways to create a “presence” nearby. Dow did not exhibit, but single-handedly underwrote the technical conference, maintained a Customer Center in McCormick Place, and held a major press conference there. Call me crazy, but I say plastics makers belong at plastics shows. I remain hopeful.