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Machine Shop Tips Save Outdated Technology for Your Dinner Dates, Not Your Machine Shop

When my father immigrated to North America in the early 1960s, he got his first job at a large machine shop. When he reported to work on his first day, the shop foreman took him to a turret lathe and asked him if he had ever worked on a sophisticated piece of equipment like this before. My father surveyed the area and saw the centralized drive mechanism on the ceiling that drove the belts, which powered the machines. His answer was “NO!”

He was being truthful because he had only seen pictures of machines like this in history books covering the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. In Germany, his native country, they were already using NC (early computer numeric controlled) equipment. Time seemed to have stood still in this large Canadian machine shop. 

I remember when I was very young there were only a few CNC milling and turning machines around. Everything was machined manually, and turning production was done on CAM operated equipment such as turret lathes and screw machines. CNC machines were only used for very high production runs and they were seen as hard to set up and get going. Then sometime in the 1980s, CNC machining really began to take off. It was made simpler by the early CAM (computer aided manufacturing) software programs that made making programs faster and easier.

Many of the early CNC machines that were made for mainstream machine shops were either a 2 axis turning centre or a 3 axis milling centre. They were state of the art in the 1980s. I remember watching them work and being fascinated. They moved like a Swiss watch — cycling and circling around, carving out metal parts. For me it was better than watching TV. If you remember the 1980s there were many TV shows that were not worth watching.

Anyhow, the adoption of CNC machines happened very slowly. They still had the stigma of being hard to set up and it was extremely hard to buy them, especially for smaller shops because the investment in this technology was seen as high risk. The risk turned out to be in not buying or investing in CNC machines, since many who did not are no longer in business. It is nice to know how little foresight lenders had at the time. I remember finding it very difficult to finance CNC equipment. At one point I became so upset I wanted to defenestrate a lender (look up the word to accurately gauge my anger).

Over many years CNC machines — especially 2 axis turning centres and 3 axis machining centres — have become a staple in every machine shop. Very few do not have them. You would probably be considered a backwards production machine shop if you did not have them. Either that or you can say that without them you are an early 1900th century artisanal manufacturing facility, like a printer with a Gutenberg Press. Very cool but not very productive. Kind of like the hipster of the manufacturing world. 

CNC machines have become the standard in machine shops. But time moves on and many products we consider household staples get phased out and replaced with newer technology, like incandescent lightbulbs. It only took 200 years to phase out that technology. These bulbs were inefficient, we are told, and our electrical bills prove it. Now in machining, the straight 3 axis machining centres and 2 axis mills are becoming the incandescent lightbulbs of the manufacturing world and will soon stand beside the Gutenberg Press in historical museums. Today these CNC machines are being replaced by multi axis CNC machines with a high degree of automation, otherwise known as robotics, so they can run unattended for extended periods of time. This is now the standard state of the art machine to have in production to be regionally and globally competitive.

Many of you will say that these are overkill and they are too specialized, or like they said in the 1980s, “Too expensive!” They do cost a lot more than the old 2 and 3 axis manually loaded CNCs but they are far more productive. You have no choice but to adopt them if you want to be competitive in the 21st century.

In the end, the choice is yours, but if someone is trying to sell you a standard 2 axis turning centre or a 3 axis machining centre, then either they think you are a museum, or an ancient artisan from the era of when blacksmith shops lined the streets.

If you do buy these simple machines then maybe you should ask the salesperson if they have incandescent lightbulbs too. Incandescent bulbs are perfect for old-timey romantic dinners. Now that I think of it, it’s probably more romantic to go further back in time and buy some candles instead.

Don’t let your machine shop become a museum. Save the outdated technology for your dinner dates instead.