Even My Accurate Predictions Are Wrong

The future does not come in a straight line. Multiple factors affecting one another and the final outcome. My prediction that machine shops would see more composites is playing out, but I missed an important means by which this would happen.

This year marks the 90-year anniversary of Modern Machine Shop. As you will see in other postings to this site, we have chosen to honor the anniversary by selecting issues out of the past as a way to look back. I prefer this approach to trying to look forward. In my experience, every time I try to predict the future, the actual future that comes is substantially different. Even when I get it right, I miss a vital piece that I could have seen at the time.

In an issue 10 years ago, I wrote a cover story about a development I was confident was coming: greater use of composite materials, particularly carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP). The application of this material to more parts in the aircraft sector, plus expansion into applications beyond aerospace, would create opportunities for shops ready to machine it. A sound premise. I went on to describe machining techniques and some of the perils inherent to composite structures made through material layup, such as delamination and fraying. But over the longer term, would layup remain the sole way to make a short-run polymer composite part?

I could have seen another option. Even 10 years ago, 3D printers had long been in use. I was just one year away from writing my first significant feature article about the future of 3D printing functional parts. I was just three years away from helping my employer launch Additive Manufacturing (AM), sister publication to Modern Machine Shop.

Today, using 3D printing to make near-net-shape CFRP parts is becoming common. Our latest issue of AM happens to include two successes: polymer composite used to make strong, resilient tooling for metal bending as well as concrete forming. The CFRP in both cases is achieved not through layup but by 3D printing with polymer raw stock containing carbon fiber. So: Increased application of composites—yes. Applications beyond aerospace—check. But I still got it wrong. I missed what now seems obvious: the fact that a more accessible method for applying composite material would be found. The machining issues are not necessarily the ones I focused on back then.

The future is right here. That is the simple point I am sharing. The pieces are here to see, and yet predicting the future any further than just a few years ahead is difficult, because it involves identifying which pieces matter and, importantly, how they will fit together. Engineered composite materials matter; that was easy to see. But another piece was going to connect, the piece we would call additive manufacturing, and I did not see that much.

I hope you find this encouraging. Ten years from now will be the magazine’s 100th anniversary. If you can foresee how the pieces that are apparent today will come to fit together in the time until then, then you quite possibly have an insight better than all those who are making merely straight-line forecasts. May that insight serve you well! Ten years from now, I expect we will look back again. I hope you can look back then, too, on how far you have come and how much you have profited from the connections that you were able to see.