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Buying into new technology-and partners


Technology for metalworking suddenly seems like the human brain so complex that we can only hope to use a fraction of its capabilities. One of the goals that is shaping up for today's technology race is an effort to find the most creative understanding of how to put to work the complicated machine tools that are available.

In talking to machinery makers and software producers at the Westec show in Los Angeles late last month, a theme that often arose is how they are working to become partners with their customer.

The president of one machine tool builder said his company is producing real parts at its technical center in order to discover all that its machines can do. The builders don't actually want to do the work of their customers; but doing the work is simply the only way they can explain how to use the elaborate technology that they are supplying to their customers.

Another president says his company is becoming a partner with key customers not for months or years, but forever. What was implied is that they are doing that because neither company has a full understanding of the potential and limits of the technology.

These companies are involved as partners because the thinking that was developed in the past such as how to use a lathe with a single turret and stationary tools doesn't work with a lathe that has multiple turrets with live tools; and the same is true for milling machines that have evolved into machining centers and machining centers that are evolving into multitasking machines.

You have to really stretch your thinking when you have a machine that can cut on both sides of a workpiece at the same time, shift a part to present it to a tool from nearly any angle and have multiple processes performed on it in one set-up, and be cut by any one of 24 or 36 or 48 tools that can be live or immobile.

Besides the machine tool makers, software companies are becoming a part of the partnership mix. The complexities of the machine require so many lines of computer code that a software programmer at a keyboard is becoming more common than a machinist in front of a controller.

The result is that, in an era of downsizing and increased productivity through automation, the production team is becoming bigger and broader than it ever was.

These increasing numbers of new partners are going to be involved in machining until the capabilities of the new technologies are fully discovered, digested and dispersed among large corporate machine shops and small job shops.

One of the changes that technological advances is making is in the complex relationship between machine tool makers and their customers, and those customers are becoming increasingly dependent on the machine makers for services to make sure that they can use the tools they are buying.

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