Explaining What We Do

My barber’s shears have gotten sharper. He happened to tell me this one day.

My barber’s shears have gotten sharper.

He happened to tell me this one day. Electric clippers have declined in quality the way a great many low-end appliances have declined in quality over time, but shears (what you and I might call scissors) have gotten better and better at cutting.

This conversation was something of a reversal for him and me. More often our small talk involves me trying to explain my work to him. And the small talk generally provides too small a venue to explain it clearly. I work for a magazine read by managers and business owners concerned with CNC machine tools. The “magazine” part of that statement is clear enough, but what is CNC? Or for that matter, what is a machine tool?

I'm sure you can relate. Many who work in or near metalworking eventually come to accept that most of the people they meet will not be able to develop a clear picture of what the work entails. Machine tools and metalworking touch on so much that it's hard to describe in a few words what the field is all about, unless those few words are impossibly broad and vague. Looking around the barber shop, for example, I couldn’t see much of anything wasn’t either made on a machine tool or made from a mold or die that had been machined.

But the thing is, I could explain what he said about the shears. Clippers have declined in quality because consumers (as a whole) won’t pay the extra price that quality would cost for low-end appliances. At the same time, however, the shears have gotten sharper in large part because the grinding machines used to make them have improved. This improvement has not come with added cost, because even as machine tools and the shops that use them have gotten better, the costs of machine tools have come down.

Look closely, and it’s not hard to find other examples of how better machining has benefited not just barbers, but consumers in general. I see an example in almost every car commercial, for instance. Car makers today can offer much longer warranties for their products with little risk. Improved reliability is the reason. And how much of the credit for this reliability can be attributed to the improved precision with which critical components of the car can now be machined?

To describe metalworking in terms of what machine shops make is difficult, because machining is used to make so much. A more effective tack, as I discovered during that visit to the barber, is to describe what machining has made better.