An email from a reader implied the question of whether anyone who continues to use manual machine tools is making money.
The author, Jim Ream, owner of QMS Inc. in Glasgow, Ky., has a six-man job shop equipped with Haas and Fryer CNC machines, wire EDMs, and grinders.
"I recently went through the newest school in Kentucky that was built, it was said, to train toolmakers and they had only manual machines. I went off. Yes, you can teach with these machines but you are also teaching that these machines are okay and they are not.," Ream said in his email.
"I started in this business in 1965, and you can not tell me that those machines we used then still have a place in industry,"Ream concluded.
His email reminded me about seeing a German company that continues to produce manual lathes. At the last EMO show, the owner of the company was grumbling that no one was buying his machines.
His machines were outstanding; there is no doubt about that. Besides having the lines of a classic lathe, every adjusting wheel and knob was chromed, and there were more adjustments that you could make on that machine than most. These lathes looked to be made at the top of their craft: The knurls were sharp and true, the vernier scales were tight and etched, and the company's owner said his equipment would match any other machine's tolerances. Additionally, they sparkled. After seeing the work-a-day machines in the other halls at EMO, coming on these manual lathes was like approaching a work of art.
The problem is, of course, that you don't need a work of art for production work.If you're going to be competitive, you need the work-a-day machine that will maintain tolerances and crank out production.
You might make an argument that to really understand how the CNC machine works, you need to know how a manual machine works, and I can see that to a point. Yes, you need to know how that machine works, but your business doesn't need to run one and you sure don't need to replace your CNC with one.
Maybe you also can argue that a toolmaker should know how to run a manual machine or that the engineer who designs a CNC should run one, but I would argue with you. I can't see the reason for it. CNC machines were developed to advance the science, not to be put on the shelf.
Further, the German lathe producer himself stated the case for CNC machines just by arguing that his machines would match any other machines' production tolerances. However, he could not argue that his machine was more repeatable and productive than a CNC machine. He couldn't make that argument.
So, I think Ream is right: What are kids being taught in school? That old equipment is better? That new production technologies shouldn't be used?
If you're willing to make that argument, how far back are you willing to go? Should we return to belt-driven lathes? Should tolerances be no closer than what's acceptable say, for woodworking?
If schools have shop or return to shop classes, shouldn't they be teaching skills that young people can use in the real world, not just for a hobby?
I like the question that Jim Ream implied in his email: Is anyone out there making money using only manual equipment? I would be happy to hear from you if you are.