They are mills, lathes, and grinders which fit in between straight CNC models and conventional manual models. These in-between machines have servodrives and a computerized control unit but can be operated manually just with hand cranks.
The concept isn't entirely new. Many models were on display at the IMTS two years ago and even more were in the booths at this year's show. Other machine tool developments, such as high-speed machining, may be more glamorous and get more attention, but in-between machines are likely to benefit a lot more shops.
These machines provide a convenient and affordable bridge to CNC. A surprising number of shops have no CNC or only a few CNC machines. They haven't needed CNC or can't justify the cost of CNC equipment. A few shops have simply been afraid of CNC. The in-between machines are attractive in all of these situations.
Many machining operations can be performed very efficiently in the manual mode. Other operations, such as drilling bolt-hole circles on a mill, are more efficiently performed in an automatic mode or by CNC. Other operations can only be performed with CNC--milling circles, arcs, and angles for example. An in-between machine gives you the best of both worlds.
A skilled toolroom machinist will be more productive with computerized features that speed up routine, repetitive, or tedious tasks, while the manual mode option allows traditional hand-and-eye skills and dexterities to be fully exploited. Moreover, a manual machine that is capable of automatic operation can take on some production jobs and go on earning its keep.
Where machinists are reluctant or not ready to jump to CNC, the in-between machines let CNC be introduced gradually. The machines can be working productively in the manual mode until operators are acclimated to CNC concepts and trained for automatic operation. Other shops will like the idea of going the opposite direction--taking CNC operators and developing their skills as toolroom machinists or tool and die makers.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the in-between machines is proving that machinist skills and the need for automation are not mutually exclusive. They can and do co-exist. They are compatible and complementary. There's a place for both, even on the same machine.