Consumer Ratings for Machine Tools?

There are ratings for cars, but rating machine tools would be a different matter.

Why is there no independent testing agency providing ratings of machine tools in the way that Consumer Reports rates cars? Readers ask us this question frequently. Shops are often in the dark about which machine to buy, so the question makes sense. Could an agency arise to provide objective, comprehensive data on machine tool performance?

I think the answer is no, for two reasons:

1. The machine tool industry is small compared to the auto industry.

A large share of Americans drive, while a minuscule portion of Americans manages a machine shop. That discrepancy makers the universe of potential buyers for machine tool ratings comparatively small. The dollar sizes are also out of scale, with the U.S. spending something like 40 times more on new cars than it spends on machine tools. This difference speaks to the amount of money that would be available to pay for machine tool ratings.

And the end users of these ratings would have to pay for them. Consumer Reports accepts no advertising. By comparison, the publication you’re reading does accept advertising—which is why it is free to qualified subscribers. We are grateful for the support of advertisers that makes our work possible, and that very gratitude would make it difficult to avoid the appearance of bias (if not the fact of it) if a publication like this one tried to test and rate advertisers’ products. Thus, a “Consumer Reports for machine tools” would need to be audience-funded. How much this funding would have to accomplish leads to the second point.

2. The scope of the challenge of rating machine tools is greater than that of rating cars.

Consumer Reports evaluates 36 makes of cars (Acura to Volvo). Meanwhile, Techspex.com logs more than 600 machine tool brands. Consumer Reports also segregates cars into just 10 categories (SUVs, sedans and so on), while many more categories would be needed to cover the range of machine tool types. Gardner Research’s Capital Spending Survey tracks 41 machine tool categories. In each of these comparisons, the larger number on the machine tool side highlights how much more complicated rating CNC equipment would be than rating cars.

Then add the simple fact that cars are mobile. Machine tools are not. Much of the cost of rating machines would thus have to be spent on shipping them to a central testing site, or else sending teams of testers with raw stock and tooling to the places where the machines are installed.

Because of these factors—limited demand plus large difficulty—a rating service for machines is not an overlooked opportunity. Instead, the lack of this service is an inherent fact of the industry.

A part of me wishes this wasn’t so. I might enjoy working on the testing team. Still, I am confident that a market-funded machine tool rating service is something we will never see.