If there's one thing I love about the machine tool business, it's the devotion to this industry that so many people share. They believe that machine tools are damned important, not just to a small group of engineers, but to our society at large. To be involved in creating the machines that make the machines is a privilege and a responsibility that few outsiders understand, but that all benefit from in a myriad of ways.
So I'm always delighted but never surprised to meet someone like Ed Kirkham. A true pioneer, Mr. Kirkham was one of the early developers of hexapod technology back in the 1980s at Kearney & Trecker. He was the one at K&T who first conceived of a six-legged contraption to levitate a spindle—an idea he only found out later resembled the Stewart Platform—and the one who built the first model out of soda straws and rubber bands. That project eventually went on to produce the Giddings & Lewis Variax, the prime attraction of the 1994 IMTS show.
Now, at the ripe young age of 79, Mr. Kirkham is at it again. Along with 41-year-old partner Bruce Konkel, he's formed Pathfinders, Inc. (Muskego, Wisconsin) to develop a new hexapod called the HexVantage. It's a much smaller and simpler machine than most you may have heard about and much less expensive too. The first tabletop model has a 6.5-inch diameter by 7.5-inch working zone, a 25,000-rpm, 1.5-hp spindle, and it sells for $40,000. (It will be on display March 15-18 in the Design Engineering Pavilion at National Manufacturing Week in Chicago.)
While many people in the machine tool industry are skeptical about the viability of hexapod technology, Mr. Kirkham remains a committed advocate. And his plainspoken arguments are convincing. "If computers had been invented before machine tools, every machine tool would work this way," he says. Indeed, hexapods rely far more on mathematics than mechanical precision to deliver accuracy, are inherently more rigid than conventional designs, and ultimately should be less costly to build and maintain.
While inspiration and commitment are hardly problems for Mr. Kirkham and Mr. Konkel, money is. So they now are seeking an influx of new capital and management expertise. I hope they find it. Engineering machine tools is what these guys do best, and we're all better off if they get the chance to continue doing that for a long time to come.