CHICAGO - Being relatively new to this trade show gig, I figured I had witnessed the granddaddy of them all at the Society of Automotive Engineers congress in Detroit earlier this year.

But in sheer size, the SAE pales compared with the International Manufacturing Technology Show, which is so big it takes up three buildings at Chicago's McCormick Place conference center. It's the largest industrial exhibition in North America.

In all, 1,400 exhibitors use 1.4 million sq. ft. (130,000 sq. m) to show the latest and greatest in areas such as metal cutting and forming, tooling, quality assurance, lasers and factory automation.

Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of the show was the recent announcement that Cincinnati Milacron Inc., an industrial pioneer inmachining with a heritage spanning more than a century, is selling its machine tool business to Unova Inc. for $178 million. Unova was formed last October when its activities were spun off from Western Atlas Inc.

With 2,400 employees, the machine tool unit had sales of $458 million and operating earnings of $14.5 million in 1997. The deal was expected to close Oct. 2, when Cincinnati Milacron will be renamed Milacron Inc., with expected 1999 sales of $1.8 billion.

Why the move? It's so the new Milacron can focus exclusively on the higher-margin businesses of plastics technologies and industrial products.

In the area of metrology, Brown & Sharpe showed several new products as the company tries to recreate itself with a new logo and improved coordination with European operations.

One of those products is the high-speed Vento horizontal arm measuring machine, equipped with a servo wrist and SP 600 analog scanning probe that easily can be exchanged with a laser probe for increased data collection. The machine is ideal for quick measuring of automotive bodies and will interface with CAD drawings.

Ford Motor Co. has purchased 20 of the new machines and will upgrade 110 existing measuring machines. The new equipment will be running in 31 Ford plants in North America.

Other new measuring systems also were introduced at the show by Carl Zeiss IMT Corp., Mitutoyo Measuring Instruments and Giddings & Lewis Sheffield Measurement.

In the area of lasers, Lumonics Inc. displayed the powerful light blades used to cut the hydroformed frame rails and roof bows for the redesigned Chevrolet Corvette.

Lumonics displayed its MultiWave-Auto, an impressive new laser designed specifically for body-in-white processing and welding tailored blanks. It can weld aluminum up to 0.25 ins. (6 mm) deep and chromium magnesium and stainless steel up to 0.4 ins (10 mm) deep. General Motors Corp. has OKd the purchase of three of the lasers (at $450,000 apiece) for production of the Suburban in model year 2000.

In product development, 3D Systems Corp. demonstrated the SLA-5000 rapid prototyping system. Automakers are using it to develop prototypes of underhood components. Such a feat was impossible in the past because the prototypes could not withstand the heat. But 3D Systems and CIBA Specialty Chemical have produced a new high-temperature resin for use in many underhood components, including exhaust manifolds and transmission casings.

My vote for the coolest display at the show: an ultra-high speed horizontal machining center from Mazak Corp. With the speed of a pinball, it took a large aluminum casting and cut a complex design on its face. Then it used an equally impressive cutter to shave the block smooth, sending aluminum shavings the size of woodchips flying - all safely within a glass case.

Yazaki North America Inc. "christens" its new technical library, a 165- by 48-ft. (50- by 15-m) boat-shaped structure suspended 20 ft. (16 m) above floor level of Yazaki's new North American headquarters in Canton, MI. The ship symbolizes Yazaki's journey into the new millennium . . . Eaton Corp. will expand its plant in Athens, GA, to build more automotive superchargers, boosting full-time employment from 285 to 355. Eaton's supercharger sales are expected to grow more than 20% annually . . . Hayes Lemmerz Intl. Inc. will open a new cast-aluminum wheel == facility next year near its existing plant in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The company has received a contract for cast alloy wheels for BMW's new 3 Series platform . . . Breed Technologies Inc. has opened FAB 2, the world's largest facilityy dedicated exclusively to silicon micromachined sensor manufacturing. The Helsinki, Finland, plant can produce 10 million acceleration, pressure or yaw rate sensing elements a year . . . Engelhard Environmental Systems Ltd., a joint venture of Engelhard Corp. and India-based UCAL Fuel Systems, has begun production at India's first auto-emission catalyst plant

. . . Dana Corp. has begun construction of the new Spicer Heavy Axle and === Brake headquarters in Kalamazoo, MI. It will employ 200. . . . Magna International Inc. has formed a joint venture with Grammar AG of Germany to supply truck interiors for North American medium and heavy trucks. Gra-Mag Truck Interior Systems will be based in Livonia, MI . . . Degussa AG is opening an auto-emission catalyst plant in Karlskoga, Sweden, capable of pro-ducing 1.5 million units a year. Degussa recently acquired the facility and renovated it.