Good Things are Worth the Wait

Most “new” things are not quite ready for prime time when introduced to the market. Further development is necessary and, if the concept is valid, it will be moved forward by its implementation.


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I believe that hindsight helps give a person insight into foresight. It would be immodest for me to say “I’ve seen it all,” but I have seen a lot. Sometimes being able to see the future is grounded in things seen in the past.

Let’s review. Metalworking, of the subtractive kind, has been with us for thousands of years. The fundamental desire of removing material to create an object that is more useful, and therefore more valuable, was and still is the goal.

Over the millennia, we have developed tools, means and methods of ever evolving complexity to accomplish what is still a fundamental and critical task—making more valuable stuff from less valuable stuff. Technology has always been about the how but, at the core, it’s never been about the what.    

Having written about metalworking manufacturing for pushing 40 years, I have seen promises of magic bullets come, go, and in some cases, come back. When I was younger, dumber and more gullible, the bandwagon of new and exciting technological advances was simply too hard not to jump onto. With hoopla, it can be easy to forget the fundamentals.

However, one lesson that I’ve seen and learned is that most “new” things are not really ready for prime time when they come out in spite of the bandwagon effect. Further development is necessary for complex technology, and in time, if the concept is valid, the market will accept it and be moved forward by its implementation. That development process has become much shorter over time.

Many of these “shiny baubles” were heavy on promise, but at inception, were often a bit light on performance in the beginning. One example that comes to mind is the transition from numerical control or machine tools to computer numerical control.

For machine tool NC, which traced its genesis to a French loom maker in the 18th century, holes punched in a tape and read by the control were used as a program to run a machine. The patterns by which the holes were punched were effectively the G-code instructions of their day.

Early CNC was touted as the wave of the future, and it has been. However, it took time. With CNC, paper tapes that contained the operational instructions for running a machine, were replaced by a “memory chip” embedded in the machine’s control. A tape reader had morphed into a computer.

There was a vestige from that tape-to-chip transition that I recall. Today, we measure computer memory in gigabytes and other such big bytes. However, for quite a while, extra memory capacity for CNC machines was priced in “feet.” The user could purchase 100, 200, or 300 feet of memory for their CNC. It still tickles me to read about the availability of that option in old ads.

Today, we are in another new age of manufacturing potentiality. All the many things (data) that a machine tool or accessory or ERP system has in their respective computers is being subjected to a “harvesting” that results in a new capability to view shop performance holistically, as a system, rather than one machine at a time. This new capability is being summed up by the terms Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things.

Our guest columnist this month talks about the rising importance of data acquisition and its analysis in manufacturing. Tom Clark is president of INDEX Corp., which, as a machine tool builder, is aware of the need to have equipment ready to participate in the rise of connectivity in the manufacturing environment (see “Digitalize for Big Possibilities”).

INDEX and most other companies are catching this wave of information technology by infusing their equipment with the software to make the hardware as much of a diagnostic tool as a machine tool. There is much information that can be gleaned from a CNC, and capturing the data is a big step forward.

The next step is to determine what data is relevant and therefore actionable. Data without context is not useful. Understanding the needs of the individual shop, then acquiring and analyzing the data to help it move forward, is the key to this next evolution.

One size will not fit all when it comes to Industry 4.0, and that is the beauty of it.