A Quarter Century of Technology

Looking back at 25 years of changing technology.

In a human life span, 25 years is a significant chunk of time. This month marks my 25th anniversary with Production Machining’s parent company, Gardner Business Media. It has been a great ride. There have been many ups and downs, as metalworking continues to work through its inevitable cycles, but in the aggregate, I must say the ups have outweighed the downs.

I still remember well my first day driving up to the headquarters building in my 1971 Volkswagon Karmann Ghia convertible and being pleasantly surprised that one of the designers in our creative department drove one, too. It was 1992, and seeing two 21-year-old Ghias in one place was rare, especially being north of the snow belt; in California, yes, but not in Ohio because not many VWs survived the salt.

For 16 years it was my daily driver, and I kept that car running until 2003 when it badly needed its third floor pan. I sold it to a father and his daughter for their restoration project. It’s probably still running.

As my anniversary loomed, I began thinking of some of the changes that have occurred in the metalworking industry and more specifically the precision machined parts industry. For example, when I started in the trade magazine business as associate editor for Modern Machine Shop, two key trade associations had different names.

The Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) was originally the National Screw Machine Products Association. That changed in 1996 to reflect the changing nature of the industry as CNC and other electronics came to the fore and as traditional cam-actuated automatics were not as able to meet the tolerance standards or change-over times that the evolving mix of parts and lot sizes demanded because of shorter component life cycles.     

Likewise, AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology was called National Machine Tool Builders Association when I got started in the business. This name change reflected a realization that the machine tool, while critical to virtually any process, is dependent upon upstream and downstream operations to make and assure good parts. Throughput, in many cases, has replaced cycle time as the primary metric of production efficiency.

After my Ghia, I bought a new Beetle convertible, which I drove for 13 years. It had a six-speed manual transmission, but was the worst car ever in the snow. So last year, I bought a new Honda HRV with all-wheel drive. It has an automatic transmission and road stability that better reflects my age and reflexes.

My point is to note the incredible difference in technology from my Ghia to my Honda. The Ghia was a Spartan—easily fixable and incredibly reliable. This new Honda has features I could not have imagined back in the “old days,” such as backup cameras, passenger side view mirror cameras, rear window wipers and washers, heated seats, and a heater!

In cars, as in manufacturing, the migration from analog to digital has wrought some amazing changes in ease of use, efficiency, reliability and the need for somewhat different skill sets. I still drive my car and steer, brake, and step on the gas pedal, but soon even this may be a thing of the past, as technology marches forward and requires a change in how we relate to an automobile. 

Reflecting on my 25 years covering developments in manufacturing, and the 14 years I spent on the OEM side, I believe this is the most interesting time to be involved in this business. The blending of mechanical engineering and electronic engineering (mechatronics) is taking all of manufacturing to technological places that were merely pipe dreams when I got started.

The millennials in manufacturing are at the beginning of their journey, and I can’t imagine the fantastic things they will see between now and 25 years from now. I envy them for that.