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Nick Bloom

Nick is the founder and owner of Techspex, billed as “THE machine tool database” and found at www.techspex.com. Since graduating from SMU in Dallas in 1973, he has worked in sales and management at various levels of the machine tool industry, including working for two builders, a national importer and a local distributor. Techspex is an online database of machine tools that helps visitors quickly find the machine tool model(s) they need. People often ask Nick how the idea of Techspex came about. “Figuring out which builders make machines that can best handle a job was time-consuming and hit-or-miss,” he says. Seeing the potential early on for the Internet to help solve this problem, he launched Techspex in 1996.

Posted by: Nick Bloom 12. October 2011

Big Part Machining: Overcoming the Forces of Nature

Successfully machining big parts can highlight man’s ability to overcome the forces of nature in a way that few other achievements can. The recent imX event in Las Vegas featured metalworking industry suppliers presenting process solutions and unique information about their capabilities that helped the audience better understand their strengths.
 
When I sat in at a Seco Tools presentation, I learned about some of its unusual cutting tool developments and applications. One speaker I found particularly interesting was Seco Tools customer Neville Withers of Iljin America (Greer, South Carolina). He talked about the development of custom tooling for machining 10- and 13-foot-diameter yaw and pitch gears for wind turbines.
 

In this wind turbine assembly, the light blue pitch bearing assembly (No. 1) is mounted to the rotor hub. The darker blue yaw bearing (No. 2) is mounted between the nacelle and tower.

 
No doubt, the technical aspect of designing and building this tooling tapped Seco Tools’ engineering abilities. However, during Mr. Withers’ presentation, he emphasized a less-tangible attribute better known as “whatever it takes.” 
 
One weekend, while working under severe time constraints, Seco Tools and Iljin America personnel were able to identify and remedy another supplier’s cutter performance problems. They were able to build a new, custom holder equipped with carbide inserts designed to efficiently cut especially large gears made from low-alloy chromium molybdenum steel. They overcame challenges such as component cross-section susceptibility to warping and twisting due to sub-optimal cutter geometry and toolpath strategy. They also solved a chip evacuation problem that could prevent acceptable surface-finish conditions in the gear tooth profile.  
 

A smiling Mr. Withers stands inside one of the machined yaw gears, a testament to the success of these companies at overcoming the forces of nature by working together.  

Posted by: Nick Bloom 24. January 2011

What the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence Can Learn from Machine Tool Crashes

Just when I thought I had enough to worry about, I heard a story on NPR about a threat far greater than nuclear holocaust, climate change and viral plagues put together. It’s called the AI SINGULARITY. Artificial Intelligence Singularity is the point at which a computer becomes capable of improving itself. It can figure out how to make its own computing power greater. According to the story, if left unchecked, Singularity will result in worldwide catastrophe sometime between 30 and 60 years from now. A small group of scientists, programmers and big thinkers are busy trying to proactively head off this disaster at the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence in Berkeley, CA.

Machine Learning, which is a branch of Artificial Intelligence, might give us a glimpse into what it means for a computer to improve itself. A basic and early-stage example of machine learning is Amazon.com's integrated recommender, which suggests books, movies and music that I might like based on other people's similar purchases. Similarly, Pandora is an online radio that builds libraries of music for me based on the music I like.
 
None of these sound sinister or life-threatening. So what’s the concern about the “Singularity?”
Once that Singularity line is crossed, and experts insist that it will be, the rate at which computers will learn and evolve could be so fast that humans can’t keep pace or stop it. However, the real problem is that computer self-evolution could just as easily include behaviors that are life-threatening as life-benefitting. Think HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 

Because the speed of computer evolution could dramatically surpass human ability to counter actions, the worst-case scenario envisions a sudden geometric explosion of computer evolution that is uncontrollable and harmful, thus bringing all life to a sudden end.

The race is on to build an Emergency Stop Switch that will interrupt a runaway malevolent Singularity. Jason Murray, one of the programmers working on the problem, is not optimistic about their chances of correctly addressing the threat. “We have a low chance of solving this ridiculously hard problem, and it’s…” He paused to let out what seemed like a muffled cry for help. “It’s really, really bad.”

Maybe this out-to-save-the-world group in Berkeley needs a manufacturing engineer on the team. Stopping a runaway turning or machining center before it does too much damage is a problem that we in metalworking deal with every day. Didn’t the machine tool industry invent that big red emergency stop button that’s prominently mounted on every machine tool? Machine tool crashes are inevitable. That’s why weak-link shear plates and pins are built into critical load machine tool components. When the machine is pushed too hard, the weak link breaks and shuts down the machine in less than a second, thereby containing the damage and avoiding major destruction. And broken tool detectors and built-in servo overload devices are all designed, not to prevent crashes or breaks, but to minimize the effect of crashes when they occur. All these devices work to prevent catastrophe.

Isn’t the concern about computers evolving too fast for humans to keep pace not unlike the concern we have for an out-of-control machine tool? Then maybe the key to dealing with the inevitable Singularity, like machine tool crashes, is to focus on controlling it, not preventing it.

Posted by: Nick Bloom 24. January 2011

What the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence Can Learn from Machine Tool Crashes

Just when I thought I had enough to worry about, I heard a story on NPR about a threat far greater than nuclear holocaust, climate change and viral plagues put together. It’s called the AI SINGULARITY. Artificial Intelligence Singularity is the point at which a computer becomes capable of improving itself. It can figure out how to make its own computing power greater. According to the story, if left unchecked, Singularity will result in worldwide catastrophe sometime between 30 and 60 years from now. A small group of scientists, programmers and big thinkers are busy trying to proactively head off this disaster at the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence in Berkeley, CA.

Machine Learning, which is a branch of Artificial Intelligence, might give us a glimpse into what it means for a computer to improve itself. A basic and early-stage example of machine learning is Amazon.com's integrated recommender, which suggests books, movies and music that I might like based on other people's similar purchases. Similarly, Pandora is an online radio that builds libraries of music for me based on the music I like.
 
None of these sound sinister or life-threatening. So what’s the concern about the “Singularity?”
Once that Singularity line is crossed, and experts insist that it will be, the rate at which computers will learn and evolve could be so fast that humans can’t keep pace or stop it. However, the real problem is that computer self-evolution could just as easily include behaviors that are life-threatening as life-benefitting. Think HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 

Because the speed of computer evolution could dramatically surpass human ability to counter actions, the worst-case scenario envisions a sudden geometric explosion of computer evolution that is uncontrollable and harmful, thus bringing all life to a sudden end.

The race is on to build an Emergency Stop Switch that will interrupt a runaway malevolent Singularity. Jason Murray, one of the programmers working on the problem, is not optimistic about their chances of correctly addressing the threat. “We have a low chance of solving this ridiculously hard problem, and it’s…” He paused to let out what seemed like a muffled cry for help. “It’s really, really bad.”

Maybe this out-to-save-the-world group in Berkeley needs a manufacturing engineer on the team. Stopping a runaway turning or machining center before it does too much damage is a problem that we in metalworking deal with every day. Didn’t the machine tool industry invent that big red emergency stop button that’s prominently mounted on every machine tool? Machine tool crashes are inevitable. That’s why weak-link shear plates and pins are built into critical load machine tool components. When the machine is pushed too hard, the weak link breaks and shuts down the machine in less than a second, thereby containing the damage and avoiding major destruction. And broken tool detectors and built-in servo overload devices are all designed, not to prevent crashes or breaks, but to minimize the effect of crashes when they occur. All these devices work to prevent catastrophe.

Isn’t the concern about computers evolving too fast for humans to keep pace not unlike the concern we have for an out-of-control machine tool? Then maybe the key to dealing with the inevitable Singularity, like machine tool crashes, is to focus on controlling it, not preventing it.

Posted by: Nick Bloom 27. October 2010

The Auto Bailout was the Right Move

Though my gut told me the government shouldn’t bail out the auto industry, self-interest (36 years in machine tools) may have influenced my grudging support. As the debate gathered momentum everyone had an opinion, most driven by emotion, politics or ideology. 

Many concluded the bailout was a classic example of federal government overreach. Looking back now, I don’t think so. I think the bailout went forward for three reasons, all of them sound:  

1. The administration analyzed the risk and decided that a strategy to save the industry had a good chance of succeeding.
2. Letting the industry fail partially (perhaps Ford could survive) or totally would cost our economy far more than a bailout that left an auto industry on long-term life support.
3. The manufacturing infrastructure and knowledge base that supports the auto industry is strategically important for sustained growth of the economy and vital to our national security interests.


The plan came just after TARP, but it was different from TARP. This time, the government did not infuse the auto industry with no-strings cash as TARP did for the banks in its haste to stem financial collapse. With the help of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry, the government crafted the Auto Industry Support Program to save billions of dollars and more than a million jobs. The plan was designed to retain strategically important infrastructure and set the stage for a manufacturing expansion that could be the engine for a sound economic recovery built on steady, sustainable growth instead of the next big boom bubble. 

A little over a year in, our investment is paying off. Repayment of government loans is on track or ahead of schedule. GM, Chrysler and Ford have operating profits for the first time since 2004. GM is preparing for an IPO, from which the government stands to make billions of dollars when it sells its stock and divests its interest as planned. The Big Three have rehired more than 60,000 workers since June 2009, and growth continues, though not in a “business as usual” manner. Among many austerity measures, the unions have made extensive concessions, and management rolls and salaries have been cut. The electric-powered Chevy Volt is now ready for sale and sets a new tone for the U.S. auto industry. Plus, the machine tool industry is doing pretty well, too. We shouldn’t take any of these successes for granted. We can only imagine what might have been had politics, ideology or emotion carried the day. 

Posted by: Nick Bloom 4. October 2010

Metalworking: Under-Appreciated Bellwether

According to the talking heads on cable TV, the economy is bad and the future is bleak. But a survey of our under-appreciated metalworking industry suggests otherwise. Based on the conclusions of the fifth annual Metalworking Operational Trends Survey, which was conducted by Techspex and the Research Division at LoSasso Advertising, Inc., the pundits have it wrong where manufacturing is concerned.

But manufacturing, you may think, is just a tiny little piece of our economy, so what does it matter? Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. GDP, while manufacturing represents a measly 10 percent. That might be why manufacturing doesn’t get any respect.

Ironically, though, manufacturing is enormously important to our overall economy. The benefits and influence of manufacturing touch each of us every day. More than in any business, each manufacturing dollar spent creates a ripple-effect that radiates long and strong through the economy. When manufacturing is hurting, the rest of the economy hurts. But when manufacturing is strong, it is the little engine that could, and it will tow the rest of the economy right along behind it. Plus, there are no bubbles in manufacturing because it’s an honest, competitive business with low margins that discourage speculation. Yet everyone can make a decent living at it, if they’d only give a career in manufacturing a chance. Even during the worst recession in years, thousands of good jobs in manufacturing go begging! This is why I think manufacturing is our best path to reducing the deficit and debt without reducing our standard of living. I’ll suggest the steps we need to take to supercharge the manufacturing engine in a future post, but first, the good news.

In the fifth annual survey, nearly 1,000 people at large and small metalworking companies in North America tell a different story from the pessimists. Twenty-six percent of respondents said their business was steady in 2010, but 50 percent reported growth, which was up from only 16 percent in 2009. A whopping 78 percent said they expect the market to grow in 2011. Survey conclusions present a mostly optimistic snapshot of the current manufacturing economy and forecast for the future. Bolstering the positive trend are responses to my own less-than-scientific survey at IMTS, where I asked everyone I met about their business. And I’m happy to report that for most, business is good and machine tool industry suppliers are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Check out the complete survey results here.

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