The Priceless Art In Manufacturing

At the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), Modern Machine Shop had a couple of interesting “workpieces” on display (Booth B-1001). Both featured raised letters: “IMTS” on one and our magazine logo on the other.

At the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), Modern Machine Shop had a couple of interesting “workpieces” on display (Booth B-1001). Both featured raised letters: “IMTS” on one and our magazine logo on the other.

These workpieces were originally intended simply to be eye-catching objects appropriate for display at a manufacturing technology show. We also hoped to use one of them for the cover of our August issue (which we did). When Travis Egan, publisher of MMS, first suggested the idea of having the logos machined as workpieces for these purposes, it seemed like a “doable” and effective concept. But who could make these logos for us?

The immediate answer was the shop that produced a similar metal logo for us in the past. The company is C & A Tool Engineering in Churubusco, Indiana ( This shop had been the subject of several feature articles in the magazine, so we knew it well. I have great respect for Dick Conrow, the president, and for the machining specialists there. I knew he’d view such a proposed project as a chance to help out a friend, as an opportunity to spotlight the skills and abilities of the craftspeople who work at C & A and as a way to get a little positive publicity to boot.

On our end, we didn’t think we were asking too much. Besides, we’d gladly pay for the raw materials. Because both logos exist in digital form, we thought that we could just e-mail him some JPGs or TIFFs. Mr. Conrow’s team could then slap on some aluminum plate and cut the parts for us. The end result would be these really cool-looking logos in shiny metal. Plus, I would have an interesting story about how these logos were produced.

That story turned out to be more revealing than I ever expected. As Mr. Conrow later explained to me, he knew right away that this project wasn’t so simple. He told me that many paying customers also make easy assumptions about the machining process. They don’t see the gap between concept and execution and how a shop must plug it to meet expectations. As a result of this misunderstanding, he said, these customers can have an unrealistic notion of what the true costs of manufacturing are. They underestimate the real value delivered by a capable company such as C & A.

Mr. Conrow related this situation to our project as an example. He intuitively recognized what we wanted, even though we didn’t have the insight to specify it clearly. If he had asked his programmers to do just we asked (that is, turn 2D type fonts into NC tool paths), the results would have been very disappointing. The rough unfinished appearance would not reflect the care, pride, craftsmanship and commitment to quality service that goes into our products or his.

As it was, being successful in this case was a complex task requiring skilled input from many people. Take programming for example. Mark Kitt, C & A’s head programmer, pointed out that making the letters e and s appear clean and pleasing as machined features is a bit of challenge. Smooth curves are not so easy to machine unless programmed carefully. He had to manipulate the file considerably before generating a tool path, using Cimatron software for this purpose. Other refinements in the geometry had to be added to achieve the right effect.

Scott Leitch, a manager of one of the shop areas, relayed similar stories about developing cutting tool strategies to leave a pleasing pattern that helped bring out the profile of the letters and enhance the 3D effect. Clamping the plates for machining also required some planning. So that no clamps would interfere with the tool mark patterns on the upper surfaces, the shop bolted two rails underneath each plate for clamping in the machining center. Designing, fabricating and installing these rails was no small task.

The shop machined both workpieces on a Mori Seiki SV503 machining center with a 12,000-rpm spindle. According to Mr. Leitch, the IMTS logo took about 3 ½ hours to machine in aluminum, while the MMS logo took about 5 hours to machine. However, time on the machine was a small fraction of the total hours devoted to this project. That was the point that Mr. Conrow wanted me to see. The many hours that a shop spends on planning and preparing to do a job right can be largely invisible to customers who think that they are paying only for machining time.

“Those are the hours that go un-appreciated,” said Mr. Conrow. “Those hours create value, but it’s hard to relate that to the cost of a project in the customers’ eyes when they look at an honest bid.” It’s a frustrating fact of life for many shops.

As a gesture, Gardner Publications did pay for the plate stock. Everything else was a gift from C &A Tool. When I got the whole story about how these pieces were produced, the true worth of this generosity became apparent. Literally and figuratively, it had no price. We are most grateful.

So take a look at these workpieces if you read this before you go the show. They are works of art—beautiful creations that convey meaning. We’re proud to have them as symbolic emblems. C & A has every right to proud of them, too.