What's In a Lifetime?

 In May, we lost our family’s matriarch, my dad’s oldest sister and my Aunt Helen. She was 97, providing hope our gene pool deep end has room for me. She was a beloved figure to three generations of nieces and nephews—including great and great-great—who, because of her longevity, were able to know her. Helen was

 

In May, we lost our family’s matriarch, my dad’s oldest sister and my Aunt Helen. She was 97, providing hope our gene pool deep end has room for me.
She was a beloved figure to three generations of nieces and nephews—including great and great-great—who, because of her longevity, were able to know her. Helen was bright and relatively healthy right up to the end.

According to family lore, Helen, a first-born, almost didn’t live through her birthday not to mention 97 years more. Born at home, as was the norm, Helen’s delivery had problems. Complications forced the midwife to discard a non-responsive Helen in order to tend to my grandmother. It was my grandfather who resuscitated baby Helen and sent her on her long journey. Eventually, Helen would have six sisters and one brother (my dad, the youngest sibling).

As I reflected on this long life, I thought about how dramatically the world has changed since Helen debuted in 1911. To get a better understanding, I looked up a couple of events that occurred in her birth year on the History Channel Web site.

In 1911, William Howard Taft was president (he went on to become head of the U.S. Supreme Court). Arizona and New Mexico were still a year away from statehood and women were 8 years from the vote. It was in 1911 that Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. And the first “around the world” telegram was successfully sent—it took 16.5 minutes to circumnavigate the globe.

So in one lifetime, Helen saw two world wars, several undeclared “smaller wars,” the Great Depression and the rise and fall of communist Russia. Radio, TV, space travel, computers and cell phones all came to light on her watch. And of course so much more transpired, which would basically be the history of the 20th century, arguably the most intensely progressive century in history.

My musing about Helen led me to think about some of the technological hits and misses I’ve seen and covered during my 30-year metalworking career. Probably the over-arching hit technology in my time has been the development, perfection and dissemination first of numerical control and then computer numerical control for machine tools as well as computer-based by-products that technology has spawned.

There have been blind alleys such a BCL (binary cutter location), which was widely touted as the best approach to eliminating the restrictions of the traditional post-processor (but didn’t pass marketplace muster). However, the dream of a “universal translator” to eliminate post-processing pains still lives in PC-DMIS and other standards initiatives.

I’ve reported on emerging technologies that, in my mind, make all kinds of technical sense such as hexapod and tripod machine structures, yet, with a few exceptions, they have not won the hearts and minds of the manufacturing public. I also glommed onto linear motors early because they seemed to be the next step in component actuation. It looks like we will see more of these fielded on machine tools of many stripes as time goes by.

There have been big ideas. FMSs (flexible manufacturing systems) come to mind, having received large amounts of coverage based on their potential benefits to production efficiency, although they were practically not quite ready for prime time. Everybody wanted one or more, and it took a while to figure out how to capitalize on them.

It was said at the time that installing an FMS created an island of productivity in a sea of inefficiency. The problem was systemic, and it took some time for the rest of the shop to catch up with the pre- and post-process issues these systems generated. Today, with those bugs worked out, we call it cellular manufacturing, and it’s a boon to production machining.

I’m not sure about making it to 2050, my 97th year, but there is no doubt in my mind the heir to this column will be writing then about the actual “factory of the future.”  