How Many Axes Does Anybody Really Need?

I'm no Luddite, but I'm also not a gadget freak. I don't always appreciate the little gadgets that suddenly seem to be everywhere all at once, and then vanish just as quickly.

Sometimes, I feel that consumer gadgets – beepers are a great example – are only there because they "can be." The only real value I ever saw for a beeper was to people such as surgeons, who had to be called when an organ donor was available. But it wasn't long before everyone, from my neighbor to elementary school kids, was wearing one. I was pretty sure most people wore them just to feel important.

I was thinking along those lines recently when I attended the Index Corp. Tech 2007 Technology Show in Indianapolis — essentially an open house for Index to show its new multispindle CNC machines.

I don't want to make light of the power and sophistication of the equipment. Index is making machines to compete with Swiss-style turning lathes, and it now has a standard, 13-axis machine that promises to do darn-near anything on parts to 1.25 in. in diameter. It's a technological achievement, and watching it turn out complicated little parts in rapid fire is nothing short of amazing.

But Olaf Tessarzyk, president and chief executive officer of Index, made an off-hand comment that got me thinking. "With 13 axes on a one-and-aquarter-inch machine," he said with a tone of humor, "you can do a lot of damage very quickly."

The comment struck a nerve. It made me wonder how many axes do we really need? Are we approaching the point at which the number of axes available on a machine exceeds the number that are really useable? Are we at the point at which another set of axes is just another gadget?

With technological power comes complexity. Programming machines with multiple spindles and axes in the double-digits is notoriously difficult – to the point that even the CAM software developers are having trouble keeping up to provide systems that can do the job.

For a machine shop owner, it would be easy to wonder, "If I can't find someone skilled enough to run my standard lathe or my 3-axis milling machine, who am I going to find to run a 13-axis machine?"

On the other hand, if I back up to beepers again, I realize there's a bigger context: Technology compounds, just like interest on your retirement savings. The developments that were responsible for beepers – and the experiences of the people who used them (whether surgeons or my self-important neighbor) – eventually led to cellular phones. I have literally used my cell phone around the world, and I'm always available through it. It's more than a convenience; it transformed the way we live and work; it's a necessity today, and I can't remember what life was like without one.

Further, the wireless infrastructure that supports cell phones is more economical and flexible than the old copper-based networks – thus enabling the next generations of transformative technology.

Similarly, Tessarzyk pointed out that his company's CNC machines are using computer programming to replace the cams that drive Swiss lathes – giving them better repeatability. His implication is that ultimately his machines are less expensive and more accurate. Perhaps that will be the technology that creates the next transformation.

Having 13 axes on a standard machine may seem like an exotic development for the moment. It may seem unwieldy or excessive to many of you. But it also may be a proving ground for technology that creates the next standard that manufacturers can't live without.

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