Most of us have a tendency to look forward or backward when it comes to thinking about good times. It never seems to be now, either because somebody just doesn't do something as well as "they used to" or because that big break we've been looking for hasn't yet presented itself. But let me submit that these are indeed the good times for metalworking right now because of an extraordinarily favorable combination of factors that we all enjoy.
For one thing, the business climate is probably as strong as it's been in this 42-year-old's career. U.S. machine tool consumption has run extremely high since a low point in 1992, which simply means that shops have been busy for years now. And if the forecasts are right, we're looking at an upbeat market of amazingly long duration. At this moment automotive continues to be strong, aerospace is hot, and even the oil tool sector has returned to a feverish level that we haven't seen since the early 1980s.
As for technology, these are truly exciting times. Personal computers and a legion of software developers are making applications commonplace that were computer-integrated pipe dreams 15 years ago. And we are on the verge of having CAM systems that can automatically generate best-practice machining processes directly from CAD models, and not just for simple parts, but for complex 3D forms too.
High speed machining is redefining what can be achieved with the metal cutting process. We have virtually plug-n-play machining cells that job shops can use. Heck, even hexapods appear to be for real.
Then there's the so-called low end. Who thought we'd ever see machining centers and CNC lathes go for less than 50 grand? And don't write these machines off as merely cheap. Indeed, they deliver performance far superior to machines that cost four times as much fifteen years ago.
At a time when we are blessed with general business prospects that are as stable as anyone could hope for, technology has become substantially more capable and accessible than ever before. It's no wonder that investment has been so strong.
The one caveat I can see is that many shops may think they are getting ahead of their competition when in fact they are just staying even. So as the technological barriers continue to fall, shops will do well to pay as much attention to what they know as to what they have on the floor.