Turning Point

I remember visiting the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vt., several years ago and seeing examples of machine tools from the 19th century. I remember the detail attached to the casting of components used to assemble them.

Much of this form served little purpose to the job the machine was designed to do. Some of these castings were complex, including curved legs and filigree cast into the parts to make them attractive.

I especially remember seeing a planer from the late 19th century that the foundry man designed with decorations that would look as at home in a Victorian parlor as in a machine shop. But that was often how things were done back then.

At the recently completed EMO trade show in Hannover, Germany, several of the machines I saw seem to be returning to this by-gone era of adding more attractive form to the practical function of machining to make things. Industrial design is being applied to machine tools.

And it wasn’t just one class of machine or a single company’s products. I saw Swiss-type machines, multi-spindles, grinders, machining centers, CNC turning, CNC controls, rotary transfer and CMMs all bearing the distinctive mark of industrial design. Once you got a machine tool in green or gray, but now, forget about it.

 Some of these look so futuristic; it was hard at first glance to tell what they were. Some look more like an appliance that would not look unusual in one’s kitchen. It’s an interesting trend that I wanted to find out more about. 

Now, to a grizzled old machine tool man like myself, designing machine tools to look pretty seems like a waste. Why take the time, expense and effort to dress up something that is made to do work? It’s a tool after all. But from further investigation, I discovered there are highly practical reasons for this emergence, and it is likely to become even more widespread.

I quizzed some of the company officials about their motivation for this change in design thinking, and a theme emerged: The metalworking industry is changing, and these new machine tools are designed to reflect these changes. “What changes?” I asked.

The consensus is that to attract the workers of the future, and hopefully the present, companies are working hard to clean up their shop floors. Now, many of us who get out into these shops can testify to the fact that what was OK as a working environment in the past simply does not cut it anymore.

As we need desperately to attract a new generation of metalworkers to an increasingly sophisticated business with increasingly sophisticated skill requirements, success is based in making the shop floor a workspace that these young people will find clean and attractive. One person I spoke with put it this way: “If you have to spend your work day with a machine tool, why can’t that machine tool be designed ergonomically and look like something from the 21st century?”

And beyond fancy guarding on the machine itself, the interface between machinist and machine is part of this trend to entice a young and computer literate generation to the metalworking field. Most of these new machine introductions also continued the trend to more user friendly CNC operability that reflect better understanding of the type of worker that will be attracted to our field ongoing.

One machine tool builder at the show introduced a CNC that has what is basically similar to iPhone functionality that overlays the CNC functionality. Touchscreens and apps for the operation of the workstation mimic the way a smart phone operates with the idea that it will make the machine operator more comfortable working with an interface that is familiar.

As I talked to more OEMs about the motivation for the use of design engineers in development of new machine tool offerings, my skepticism about the need for it changed to an understanding of the need for it. I now believe this is a reflection of an industry that is responding to a deep concern that all involved know to be a problem: Where will future workers come from?  

The machine tool trend I saw at EMO is one leg of a three-legged stool to help ensure the future health of precision metalworking, specifically the response of shops to make their work environment more attractive. The other two legs consist of the need for education to provide candidates the kinds of skills needed to take advantage of the opportunities available in the field, and making the machines of the future for the future.