It had been a while since I'd been to WESTEC, the annual machine tool show in Los Angeles. Last time, the aerospace industry had fallen into a major slump, and the show, which heavily caters to job shops making parts for airplanes, was more than a little depressing.
What a difference a few years can make. With aerospace hot again, and with a lot of West Coast shops having become more diversified in their customer base, the show was an absolute joy. But it wasn't just because business is good. It's also because so much good technology is coming that serves the interests of small to medium size manufacturers.
Mid-range machine tools, turning and machining centers in particular, are getting much faster at the same time they grow more accurate, and frequently at little or no more cost. Simpler forms of automation are more easily integrated with these machines, making high-production-like yields both technically and financially accessible to just about any shop with the appropriate combination of part mix and desire to step up to the next level.
It's amazing what's happening in the so-called low end CNC machine market. In the early days of the low-cost machining center boom, for example, you could pretty much look at the table size, equate it to a price tier, and take your pick. But now builders are bringing much more depth to their technology. Higher speed spindles and more powerful control options are rendering these machines capable of performance way beyond what you'd expect for the price.
Software is growing remarkably intelligent. You don't hear the term "expert systems" much anymore, but knowledge-based CAD/CAM systems today have fulfilled much of the potential that was promised a decade ago, and with much simpler technical approaches. It really is getting very easy for shops to capture their best machining practices in software, and use that knowledge to generate part programs, if not completely automatically, at least with minimal programmer inputs.
And then there's the Internet, a great equalizer that will provide smaller shops with the same networking capabilities of their largest customers. It's the wide area network that will connect us all, and with which virtually all software applications will be compatible much sooner than most people realize.
With all these tools, it's a good time to be small. But use them correctly, and it will be tough to stay that way.