No Extinction for Today's "Handy Man"

Turning Point

There is a quote ascribed to author and long time Harvard Review editor, Theodore Levitt, that I came across. It reads, “People don’t want a quarter inch drill; they want a quarter inch hole.” In other words, a tool is merely a means to an end, not the end itself. Well, I submit it’s not that simple.

I would venture to say that not since our ancestor Homo habilis (handy man) started banging stones together 2 million years ago to create useful shapes for more efficient deboning of meat and cutting plants have we seen such a leap in tool making as most of us have seen in our careers. Of course, the old handy man is extinct, handing the tool making mantle to the next version of our ancestor, but his legacy lives in all of us.

In our modern manufacturing world, we have never before been tasked by geometries, materials, tolerances and deliveries necessary for making many of the parts needed by the various industries a successful shop must satisfy. This modern equivalent of a quarter inch hole has driven us to new heights in the quarter inch drills we have at our disposal.

As a result, I believe ours is a fantastic time to be making things. The tools at our disposal have never in history been more varied, productive, intuitive, accurate or affordable than they are today.

These modern tools are also, in many ways, the most sophisticated that have ever existed. We employ machines, tools, automation and innovative processing capabilities that are keeping manufacturing moving forward at productivity rates, which make us competitive with other countries.

By most reports I see, we are winning the manufacturing war. I think a prime reason is that we have been able to apply ever better drills to make better holes while reducing the cost of doing the job.

When I first got into manufacturing around 1980, a simple CNC 20 inch by 40 inch VMC could be purchased for $125,000. That machine had a 21-tool capacity, 400-ipm rapid traverse rate, 200-ipm feed rate and a top spindle speed of 3,000 from a 5-hp DC spindle motor.

The cutting tools available to run on that VMC really couldn’t be pushed much beyond the machine’s specifications. Early carbide, unbalanced toolholders (who needs balance at 3,000 rpm?) coupled with basic workholding was enough.

Today’s tool makers have done a super job of providing the machine tools and cutting tools to keep manufacturing moving forward. It’s been my observation that they push each other. It’s like leap frog—a cutting tool is developed that can take double its previous feed rate with the same tool life. The machine tool builder responds by hiking the machine’s performance to match the cutting tool’s abilities.

Then, a machine tool builder introduces a machine with even higher speeds and feeds, which causes the cutting tool maker to go to the lab and formulate a response that can take advantage of the advance. It drives our industry forward and provides us with an ever better drill to make an ever better hole.

And it’s the drive to continuously reduce the cost of manufacturing that drives our industry to innovate as suppliers and consumers, which is the key to competitive survival. Remember that VMC I mentioned above. Think about the specifications of a modern 20 by 40 VMC, and then consider the price to own that machine today.

For a fraction of the 1980 price, the machine rapids at 1,200 ipm or more, feeds at the same speeds, provides 12,000 rpm from a 10-hp AC spindle motor—in other words, much more machine for much fewer dollars. Such performance enhancements and price reductions for capital equipment come from the same drivers that motivate innovation in your shop. 

It’s true that a shop’s customer doesn’t want a quarter inch drill, but rather is interested in a quarter inch hole. The part Mr. Levitt leaves out of his quote is the customer wants that quarter inch hole at a quarter of the previous price, and that makes all the difference.