Teachable, programmable milling machines available for less than $20,000 have all but taken the place of traditional manual mills, says Tim Rashleger.
Mr. Rashleger is the president of Milltronics Manufacturing Co. (Waconia, Minnesota), a machine tool builder supplying a range of both manual and CNC equipment. The company's "Partner Machines" division handles its basic machines, which consist of small manual machine tools and their teachable CNC equivalents. While the basic machines are popular, Mr. Rashleger says the demand for manual machine tools has shown a clear and steady decline.
Much of the remaining demand for these machines involves applications in which the machine is used infrequently. For example, a manual knee mill might wait in some corner of a shop where it can be seized quickly by any employee who has an unexpected simple cut to make, such as adding another drilled hole to an otherwise finished part. Other examples of infrequent machining involve the maintenance departments in plants dedicated to some form of processing or production unrelated to metalworking. The machines in these plants are used simply to make custom-machined components that are needed for repair.
In applications such as these, the machine tool is expected to provide reliable and infrequent service throughout the course of many years. That means long life and dependability may be more important than the machine's ease of use. A quality manual machine therefore makes sense. But when it comes to daily service in a metalworking environment, Mr. Rashleger says the manual machine tool simply no longer has an appropriate role.
"Today, you should never be using a manual machine for production parts," he says. "Even if the run is just 30 pieces, using a manual is too wasteful."
He has observed that even trade schools and tech centers no longer provide a reliable source of demand for manual machines. Increasingly, these facilities are doing away with manual machines in favor of basic CNC, and they are opting to bypass the teaching of manual machining skills altogether.