Turning into 2014

Turning Point

“The lathe is probably the oldest of the developed machine tools; with the bow drill, it was the only complex tool known to antiquity.” This is the intro to a book I own, “History of the Lathe,” copyright 1961. Like me, it’s old, but interesting.

One might conclude from this intro sentence that by now, this technology of turning a rotating part against a fixed tool would be fully developed with improvements to the technique completed long ago.

Well, guess again. If I’ve learned anything in 30 some years when it comes to developing the technology of manufacturing, whether it be turning, milling or precision machining in general, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

In my history book, it traces lathe development from forever ago to 1850, when the industrial revolution was a happening thing made possible by machine tools, and the methods of operating these machines: steam and water.

In those days, shops figured they were on top of the technological heap with precision measured in 64ths of an inch. They were in front of the curve and thoroughly modern. The machine pictures in the book, compared with those you see in this issue of PM, show this to be a quaint notion.

Moreover, look up machine pictures from any preceding decade, and the same effect happens. Being technologically modern is transitory. It’s the job of the developers of technology within our industry to move it forward by many metrics, but primarily through increasing consistency in the production of precision machined parts.   

As we turn the corner into 2014, I thought I’d share some thoughts of things I see happening that may be of interest as we move this old, but far from dead, process forward. These are not predictions, but simple previews of some things we have seen and plan to talk about in the magazine and online as this new year unfolds.

Some of these trends are already underway and promise to continue as markets encourage their development. Probably one of the broadest is the need (market) for implementing automation in its many forms.

Lights-out machining, a goal for many shops, is one area where automation comes together in a practical and profitable way. However, as our cover feature says, it’s not as simple as turning out the lights. Like any process, it takes proper planning to successfully execute.

Machining parts complete in a single handling is increasingly being made possible by advances in multitasking capability, material handling, sophisticated programming software, sensing and measurement, as well as cutting tool advancements. There is another aspect of this that our second feature talks about this month: process substitution. It’s a hard turning story and discusses the “when” and “how” of using a turning center in lieu of grinding.

Another important trend in control technology is enhanced machine/operator interface. In my travels this year, I’ve seen an increasing number of builders looking to simplify the operators console while making it more functional as a machine CNC. It’s complex to make something simpler.

Watch for new and interesting developments in the technology of 3D printing. In the realm of additive versus subtractive, developments are happening that combine these seeming opposites into a multitasking process that use the best of what each brings to the party.

I also think shops need to pay attention to the growth in capability and OEM participation data collection and dissemination systems such as MTConnect. Once, the machine tool was the big daddy. Now it is really only a cog in the process wheel. Ancillary, interconnected equipment plays an equal role in the throughput machine, and knowing how the link in the chain is contributing or not is the key to uptime.

There are many more useful and I think exciting things coming from this seemingly endless technology development process. In a shameless act of self-promotion, I suggest you look to each issue of PM to learn more about technologies that can benefit your business.

How will the machines and topics in this issue look from the vantage point of 2024? My lathe history book tells me: very different.