Making Sense of Multitasking

When I discuss my job with people outside of the industry, they usually don’t understand a lot of what we write about. But the term “multitasking” is one that seems to generate the most in-depth conversations.

When I discuss my job with people outside of the industry, they usually don’t understand a lot of what we write about in the magazine. Manufacturing is such an incredibly significant part of our everyday lives; I can’t imagine that anyone I know can get through a single day without using something touched by a machine tool. And yet so many people are clueless about the importance of manufacturing in their lives.

If I’m in a conversation about the industry with someone, though, and he or she seems generally interested, I can often pull out certain technologies that I can relate to other experiences to which the person might more easily relate. I’ve made what I believe is an interesting correlation between CAM software and programming a DVR. Explaining medical machining to someone in terms of recent hip replacement surgery on a loved one hits home nicely. But the term “multitasking” is one that seems to generate the most in-depth conversations.

This term has grown in popularity in recent years in various areas of life. I’m not sure if the parallel growth of the word in metalworking is directly related or merely coincidental. But I appreciate being able to explain multitasking functionality’s significance in manufacturing by relating it to how someone else handles their own work.

When I was a kid, the joke about multitasking (although not labeled as such) was that certain people are not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. My mother used to claim incredible multitasking skills with the ability to cook and clean the house while also driving my brothers and me to baseball practices. Multitasking for my kids now seems to be the ability to watch television and study for an exam at the same time.

The funny thing is, unless we’re talking about a machine, I’m not sure how convinced I am of the effectiveness of multitasking, regardless of how appealing the skill may sound. Is the human mind even capable of effectively doing two things at once? I mean, I suppose one could argue that whatever I’m doing, I’m also breathing and my heart is beating, and so on, and in a sense, this constitutes multitasking. Musicians can sing and play an instrument at the same time—that’s getting closer to what I’m talking about. But to do the best job possible requires full concentration, which, by nature, can’t involve a different simultaneous activity, unless we’re talking about a machine.

A machine doesn’t need to think about what it is doing. The thinking (programming) is done ahead of time. It just carries out the duties as it was instructed. And if it is capable, those duties might include two or three or more different functions at the same time. I suppose the processing speed may be hindered very slightly as more operations are added (as could be better seen by trying to open two applications at the same time on a computer). But the important difference is that the quality of performance is not jeopardized on a machine. In fact, because of a reduction in setups and part handling, quality and throughput are typically improved, and often substantially.

I find the various approaches to multitasking in metalworking quite interesting. Sometimes milling functionality is added to a turning center. Sometimes it’s a machining center with turning capabilities. This month, I got a closer look at yet a different multitasking approach.

The feature article on page 38 (“Grinding in the Multitasking Mix”) examines the combination of turning/hard turning and grinding on a single machine. While the overall goal is the same—improving quality and efficiency by completing a part in a single setup—the approach might be viewed as somewhat different. Besides the obvious distinction in operations incorporated, as well as the inverted vertical configuration, these machines devote close attention to accuracy through the construction of the machine bed as well as in-machine probing.

As machines such as these demonstrate, multitasking can be a great alternative to traditional machining approaches. If the same can be said for personal tasks, I haven’t yet figured it out. Until I can think like a machine, I believe I’ll struggle with separating true multitasking from merely a disjointed shifting between tasks.