Theory and Practice of the Shop Visit

There is certain information that can only come from standing in the facility.

Earlier this year, I celebrated 20 years as an editor with Modern Machine Shop. A lot has changed in that time. North American machining facilities have become more sophisticated, changing the type of information their leaders need from us. Meanwhile, the avenues of information and the demands on our audience members’ attention have expanded as well. We (the MMS staff) are more acutely aware than ever of the importance of delivering value in what we post and publish.

But one thing has not changed, something distinctive about MMS when I joined it that remains distinctive today. Namely, we retain our emphasis on what we internally call “shop visits.” These are stories about an idea or technology that we research by taking a plane or car to the very facility where it is being used, so we can see it in action and talk to the people using it.

Researching a story this way entails a lot of trouble. The travel time generally exceeds the time at the site. Certainly there are other ways—we could go directly to the suppliers of the technology rather than the users; we could talk to the users by phone. We routinely do both these things.

But there are problems. The suppliers producing the technology are understandably bullish about it. Perspectives they share relate to the best-case promise. It is the users who discover what practical obstacles stand in the way. Meanwhile, though, those users also tend to be bullish. On the phone—again, understandably—the user will generalize for the sake of an efficient conversation. Only the in-person visit provides the time and context for exploring how the technology is really playing out. It offers the chance to witness a detail that doesn’t seem to fit the portrayal and ask, “So what’s going on there?” Genuine understanding often comes after this.

This kind of effort leads to stories that are messier and less dramatic than they might otherwise be. The 40-percent productivity improvement promised might actually be an 8-percent improvement as things have played out so far. That doesn’t mean the 40 percent misrepresented the matter, and there is value in the 8 percent, but there are reasons why the user has succeeded to one extent instead of the other. Explaining or at least giving a nod to all the factors in play results in a story that is more shaded and takes more words to tell. Not to mention: The story is also prone to be less attractive on the surface, because instead of relying on catalog photos, we take real photos of where the idea or technology is really being used.

The result is a sometimes quirky magazine featuring articles that look different and read differently from what is typical of a great many other industry publications. Yet contained within those differences is detail meaningful to the audience we serve, detail that wouldn’t come out any other way. So, it’s my intention that shop visits and the types of articles that result will always remain part of the way we produce this magazine, and any quirkiness is a price we’ll happily pay.