However, even these German companies increasingly feel the effects "of the widening gap between shorter product life cycles and longer development periods for more sophisticated products," says Steffen Kinkel of the Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research (ISI), Karlsruhe, Germany (isi.fhg.de).

ISI and the Heinz Nixdorf Institute, Paderborn, Germany, plan to support small and medium-size companies with the Machine Tool Initiative 20XX, a project to help spur technology and product planning in the long term.

Part of the project was a recent survey querying manufacturers and users of machine tools on the industry's future. The results, good and bad, are grounded in technological developments. On the positive side, experts predict that in the foreseeable future, 30% of machine tools will be fitted with self-monitoring, failure prediction, and teleservice functions. Likewise, large-scale use of "plug-and-produce" manufacturing systems will soon be a reality. These machines allow quick assembly of complex systems from simple modules. Experts also say microelectromechanical systems as active components (such as active chucking systems) will be widely used within the next 10 to 15 years.

However, they also see definite risks, perhaps in the next five years. Relationships between machine-tool manufacturers and their customers may become the decisive selling point because technical features will have become nearly identical among all competitors. This development would pose a serious danger for German machine-tool exports, whose success is based on technical excellence, rather than on close relationships or short distances to global customers, says Kinkel.

A second risk lies on the software side. Experts fear that software failures, or failure of information and communication technology, might account for 90% of machine-tool downtime in the future.

Results will be presented as part of a symposium, Cutting-edge machine tools for tomorrow's production, to be held Sept. 15 and 16 at the EMO Hannover 2005 exhibition. For more information, see emo.hannover.de