It was the best of times . . . the opportunity to visit leading engineering trade shows in two great cities, Chicago and Milan. It was the worst of times . . . and only a week to do both. Two shows, two continents, and a single goal: scope out the latest in design-engineering technology.

One stop was at Fluidtrans Compomac, held every other year in Milan. Devoted to fluid-power, power-transmission, and electrical and electronic technology, the show featured nearly 700 exhibitors and drew around 30,000 attendees, mostly design engineers and machine and systems builders.

The other was the annual National Design Engineering Show in Chicago. Drawing more than 35,000 engineers and managers and over 1,000 exhibitors, it, too, focuses on such building blocks of design engineering as power transmission, motion control, CAD, and fastening and joining. In that both shows are devoted to essentially the same industries and audience, it was interesting to compare the two.

As might be expected from two cities cultural worlds apart, differences were apparent almost from the instant I stepped off the airplane. The cabbie spoke virtually no English, which forced me to pronounce my hotel nine different ways while he blankly stared my way. But then, I guess, there are a lot of hotels in Chicago.

In Milan, on the other hand, my driver spoke surprisingly good English. “Si, si, si,” and we were off like a bat out of hell. They like to drive fast in Italy. Whether they’re in a hurry or just showing off, I’m not sure. The taxis were nice, too, Mercedes and the like. Chicago seems to have more than a fair share of beaters, with torn upholstery, air conditioning that’s shot, and windows that won’t roll down. Unless, like at this year’s NDES, it’s raining. Then they don’t roll up.

In many ways the shows, too, couldn’t be more different. Perhaps most noticeable was — dancing girls! Compared with the low-key style of Fluidtrans, Cutler- Hammer’s revue at NDES was a show stopper and entertaining to boot. I don’t know what that had to do with design engineering, but it certainly attracted a crowd.

Fashions were another obvious difference. The men and women working and strolling the Fiera Milano exhibition grounds could have just stepped off the cover of Vogue or GQ, no doubt a reflection of Milan as a fashion leader. At McCormick Place, T-shirts and tennis shoes intermingled with suits and ties.

In a similar vein were the booths and displays. For the most part, NDES exhibitors did a great job of putting together informative, functional displays, loaded with products. And they often had working demonstrations, sometimes to a fault — like the guys incessantly beating parts with a sledgehammer.

But the Italians, it seems, have a better knack for the artistic flair. They take mundane pumps and motors, paint them bright reds, greens and yellows, arrange them for visual perspective, and tastefully accent them with spotlights. Suddenly, common industrial hardware was transformed into objet d’art.

But maybe the biggest difference was the energy level. In Italy, people were on business. In Chicago, they were on a mission. At Fluidtrans, they had meetings and made deals. They socialized with a cappuccino or a glass of wine. At McCormick, people were in a hurry. They had too much to see and too little time. Check out what’s new, take a look at the competition, stop and see a vendor, exchange cards, move on. At times, the frenzy reminded me a bit of the trading pits at an Options Exchange.

While the shows were different, it’s who’s there and what’s on display that really matters. And here, they were much the same. For starters, many of the Italian exhibitors were household names in America, too — multinationals like Festo, Norgren, Parker Hannifin, and Rollon. The big players at both shows were often flanked by the entrepreneurial go-getters, the little guys who maybe you never heard of, but were intent on convincing you that they had, indeed, built a better mousetrap.

While the booths were different, the products on display, in many cases, were exactly the same. The latest CAD systems, fieldbus networks, manufacturing software, servoactuators, smart sensors, the list goes on and on. Further, the engineers on both sides of the Atlantic very much knew their stuff. Not only could they quote the ins and outs of their designs and note the benefits to their customers, they were also quick to size up the competition and predict where the technology was headed. One couldn’t help but walk away impressed.

What does it all mean? In terms of engineering tools and technology, it’s pretty obvious that the global playing field is getting more level every day. Maybe it’s the mindset that separates tomorrow’s economic winners and losers. Maybe it’s the “roll-up-the-sleeves, do what it takes to get the job done” attitude that still gives a company an edge.