Finding Their Moment

Ideas in manufacturing that are not new have become newly relevant.

In the mid-1980s, Modern Machine Shop had a regular section on robots. Even back then, the case for automation was clear. Yet only now are robot loading and lights-out machining truly becoming commonplace in machine shops of all sizes.

Something similar could be said of additive manufacturing. 3D printing appeared decades ago, and some production parts have been made this way for quite a while. Yet only now is the adoption of additive manufacturing accelerating.

Then there is the trend toward in-house training of machining personnel. Using internal training to develop skilled employees rather than hiring them already trained is a new idea in many shops. However, there was a time generations ago when manufacturers would have taken it for granted that they teach their skilled employees themselves.

Automation, additive manufacturing, internal training—these are disruptive ideas. Perhaps they are the most significant ideas reshaping the way machining facilities function today. But none are new. All of these ideas waited to find their moment. Why have they found their moment now?

Consider that the U.S. itself was founded on disruptive ideas. What follows might be an overly lofty analogy, but stay with me. The ideas of representative, non-authoritarian government were already in place before the American Revolution. Those ideas were being partially applied by some governments, and John Locke had articulated the case for a fuller application nearly 100 years earlier. In short, the ideas were waiting to be picked up when the moment came. 

What brought that moment? A revolution. A painful and costly struggle.

In manufacturing today, why are ideas now being adopted by shops that might once have overlooked those same ideas? I think part of the answer can be traced to the struggle we’ve recently been through. By this, I mean the opening decade of the 2000s—the decade in which there were two significant drops in business, plus the shift of some manufacturing offshore and the discouragement of many young people who might have sought manufacturing careers.

In many shops, unattended machining began as an emergency measure during this decade. Letting the job run without people, through the night, might have been the only way for a shop that had just made heavy staff cuts in the late 2000s to take on an unexpected big order. But the shop that learns that it can confidently machine this way has discovered something powerful.

Similarly, internal training starts as plan B. If it works—that is, if a previously unskilled hire can become a valued employee—then this becomes an attractive way to recruit. Maybe even plan A.

Meanwhile, the shop that persisted and returned to thriving after the decade of the 2000s knows that it is a survivor. Taking the risk to cultivate expertise in something like additive manufacturing is a way to plant a flag in the future. 

In each of these cases, the worth of the idea by itself was not what determined its adoption. Instead, ideas find their value in part because of the times that find those ideas, and the people who have gone through those times.