Category Archives: Featured

latest post image will be prominently displayed on the featured top part of the front page.

Sweet 16

By Lloyd Graff

Today I am celebrating the 16th anniversary of Today’s Machining World. I have learned a lot about the writing business and myself by doing this thing that you are reading now. Please indulge me as I share my thoughts about it.

I started the online prototype of TMW, then called Screw Machine World, in 1999 in full hubris, coming off the lush business years of the 1990s. I was full of confidence about the future and was sure that I could make the nascent Internet-only publication a success because of my creativity and brilliance. I hired a cocky young assistant to help me.

After a few months of publishing exclusively on the Web I realized we were way ahead of our time. Also we were hacked incessantly and probably being read by 13 people on a good day.

I decided to convert it to a print publication, coming out every other month. I wrote an Editors Note, a lengthy “Swarf” column, often a long interview piece, and an Afterthought column on the back page. Screw Machine World had my imprint all over it, and honestly, I am extremely proud of the work in those issues published in the first three years.

In 2003, I had my first retinal detachment, which was the beginning of seven eye surgeries over two years. I lost much of my vision in my right eye and had a tear in my left retina, which fortunately only required a minor procedure.

Lloyd Graff’s Editors Note from the first Screw Machine World. June, 2000.

I was in my late 50s then, and my sense of invulnerability was certainly shaken. The September 11th catastrophe and a 2003 recession didn’t make things easier. Prostate surgery in 2004 that included a Code Blue because my heart malfunctioned should have alerted me to future cardiac problems, but I wouldn’t accept that notion.

By 2004 my brother and business partner, Jim Graff, was getting tired of the losses from the magazine, which by that time had been renamed Today’s Machining World, and asked me to segregate the publication from our machinery business and buy out his ownership. This was good judgment on his part because printing and distribution costs were killing us, even though the publication was an artistic success.

In 2008 I had my terrible heart attack, which I have written about ad nauseam, and the wicked recession that almost sunk the country hit. However I decided to come back to work later that year and continue with TMW. By 2010 my son Noah was working in both Graff-Pinkert and TMW, and Jim and I were ready to go our separate ways.

Undoubtedly, my time and commitment to Today’s Machining World contributed to the breakup. Jim and I are competitors in the machinery business now, but any early bitterness has worn away.

In 2011, at Noah’s urging, we became online-only, focusing on the Swarfblog. Noah asked me what I wanted to do with TMW. I said, “I just want to write. If advertisers want to stay, great, if they don’t we will continue it anyway.” I was ready to let Managing Editor Emily Halgrimson go, but she convinced me that she could take care of the business and online side of things and make me money, so I gave her a shot and cut her back to part-time. For the first time TMW became profitable. In the past four years, it has made more money each year.

I’ve learned a lot during this 16-year publishing odyssey.

I started the magazine because I had “this writing thing” I had to work out. I knew I had a “gift” of making business, everyday life, sports and just about anything come alive in words. I could simplify and tell stories, and I wasn’t afraid to expose myself. I wasn’t fearful about trying stuff and being dumb occasionally.

As I’ve gotten older I have seen Noah find his own voice and excel as a writer. When I was teetering between life and death in 2008 the only piece of property that I explicitly discussed with my wife Risa was Today’s Machining World. I wanted it to go to Noah. Everything else would be handled by my will, but TMW was special, I guess.

During the first dozen years of the magazine I thought about it as a business and obsessed about it as a business. Now I do not obsess over the bottom line. I do the magazine because I love it, and now it makes money.

I think there is a big lesson there, and I’m trying to apply it at Graff-Pinkert. If you cut the overhead enough to be able to do what you are particularly good at, and you do not have to worry very much about covering expenses, you will be happier and probably more successful.

Over the years, TMW has become a yardstick of my creativity and mental acuity. I do not want to do Swarfblog if I’m going to write it like a PR handout. If it’s not great, why do it? I hope you feel the same way about it.

Question: Are there any TMW pieces that have stuck with you over the years?

Share this post

Wear Your Seatbelt

By Noah Graff

A few months ago I was at the Bucktown Art Fair in Chicago where I met an artist/entrepreneur from Tennessee named Clay Bush. Bush uses old seat belts he scavenges from junkyards to make stylish bags, including laptop bags, backpacks, purses and bike messenger bags. He also uses seat belts to create wallets and upholstered furniture. He makes waterproof inserts for the bags out of used airbags, also from the junkyard, to hold cellphones and laptops. The buckles on the bags are the metal seatbelt buckles from GM and Ford cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s. He told me that the cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s usually have the seat belts in the best condition because often the passengers back then didn’t even use them.

The bags look stylish and seem durable but that’s not that special to me. To me what’s special about these bags is the organic human spirit that is inside each one of them. Their raw materials—used seat belts and airbags—are salvaged from discarded cars. A car—one of the main places where we Americans spend our time. Then Clay—a real person—hand picks each seatbelt and hauls them in a big duffle bag to his workshop. He designs the bags himself and physically sews them together—himself. Every bag has Bush’s touch. Funny how the origin of an item with such human touch comes from such a mass-produced one, a car.

Since 2012 Bush has made his living selling the bags at art fairs around the United States and online. Bag prices range from $150 for the smallest bags to $250 for laptop bags. Appropriately the name of his company is Salvage Goods. You can find Bush’s works at his Website:

Question: Have you ever re-purposed something old into something really cool?

Clay Bush Talks About His Bags Made of Seat Belts

Share this post

Peanuts and Crackerjack

By Lloyd Graff

My son Noah had been begging me to go to a Cubs game for several months.  Sunday morning, the second day of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Dodgers, he called me and put the hard sell on.  I had no excuse to say no, except that it was so much easier and cheaper to watch the game on TV like I had done all season.  I hedged and told him I would think about it and get back to him in a few minutes.

For Noah, such decisions are pretty simple.  If you want to go, you go.  For me it seemed much more complicated.  I see the game so much better on my 60” Samsung.  I deal with constant double vision with one eye 20-300, the other 20-25, thanks to six retina surgeries.  Knee replacement, heart damage and 71 years make everything a little harder.

But Noah was persistent.  He texted me, “If not now, when?”  He used my own B.S. on me, and it worked.  I called him, told him to buy two tickets for $250 each or less off StubHub, and I’d meet him at the L station next to Wrigley.

I picked up the three o’clock train into the city.  A father and son were sitting across from me.  I was wearing a Joe Maddon Cubs jersey that I had just ripped the tag off of, and he had one too.  They were headed to the game and had been there the night before.  We started talking like we were members of the same family.  I guess we were.

These days most folks on trains have earbuds on, isolating themselves from the other passengers, but I was in a mood to engage.  A young guy next to me was wearing a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and carrying a skateboard.  I tried talking to him about this year’s Bulls team.  He looked at me like I was a Martian, but a black fellow in front of me was delighted to talk hoops.  He knew the game, and I think he was amazed that I did too.  We talked about the seemingly brilliant trade the Bulls had pulled off that day of Tony Snell to the Milwaukee Bucks for Michael Carter Williams.

After the one-hour trip to the city, I got off the train and headed for the subway three blocks away to get to Wrigley Field.  There were 200 people there trying to get on a train that could accommodate maybe 100 more.  I squeezed on, inhaling deeply to fit in my ample behind ahead of the closing automatic door.  Just made it.

Lloyd and Noah Graff at the Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

At the Addison station I finally exhaled and exited the train.  Noah was parking a mile away at the lakefront tennis courts, the night’s only freebie.  I watched the teeming masses go by as I waited for him.  There were beggars with their pathetic pleas for dollars to fill their cups—to buy booze I imagined.  I gave to one of them.  Two fellows in electric wheelchairs looked upbeat.  A blind man in a Cubs jersey surveyed the street, crossing with all of his senses and his white and red cane.  Two sexy escorts with skirts wrapped tightly around their slender bodies ending just below their navels added some local color.

Noah finally ambled along.  We bought some relatively inexpensive bottled water at a little Latin grocery, liquor store.  We headed for the stadium to imbibe the vibe and met a cousin of my daughter-in-law who talked some baseball with us and then shot photos of Noah and me on our iPhones.

We entered Wrigley after traversing the metal detectors.  I think President Obama and Michelle were at the game, incognito, because there were four ominous black Suburbans parked next to a side entrance with a “Secret Servicey” looking guy standing guard.  On the way home the four Suburbans sped by us at 80 miles per hour, sirens blaring, headed toward the Obamas’ Chicago home.

We eventually shoehorned into our seats, about 50 rows up behind home plate.  Good seats for someone with some vision impairment.

Andre Dawson threw out the first ball, and Wayne Mesmer, the wonderful baritone voice of the Cubs, sang God Bless America and then the Star Spangled Banner.  I sang along as loud as I could and felt very patriotic and blessed to be an American and a Cubs fan, in that order.  If the rest of the game was rained out it still would have been worth coming.

As I was singing I remembered my mom taking me to Wrigley 60 years earlier to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cubs.  The Dodgers had Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and an 18-year-old Sandy Koufax.  I think she paid 25 cents to get in on Ladies Day.  I recalled her dad, who was a kid in 1908 when the Cubs last won a World Series.  He used to regale me as a kid about meeting Tinkers, Evers and Chance from that team.  They used to buy liquor at his mother’s little grocery.  My Cubs lineage runs deep.

I loved our seats, not for the view, but for the people sitting all around us.  There was a mom and daughter right in back of us who really loved the game.  They had been there the night before to the watch the Cubs win.  A man and his wife held their two babies through the entire game next to Noah, and the kids never cried.  A very knowledgeable fan interpreted some finer points of the game to me next to my right shoulder.

We had blue towels to wave and stood up every time it got exciting.  Unfortunately that wasn’t that often in a 1-0 game won by the Dodgers with five hits, total, by both teams.  Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers pitched like Sandy Koufax.

But it hardly mattered.  The game may be the “thing,” but the “vibe” was everything to me.  If not now, when?

Questions: What is the best sporting event you’ve ever attended, and why was it the best?

Are sports better on TV?

Share this post

Is America Great Now?

By Emily Halgrimson

I lean left politically and come from a family of Democrats, but most of my extended family are conservatives. I grew up with my father’s ultra-liberal ideals based on the most profound teachings of Jesus, and my grandmother’s traditional conservative values based on her moderate Lutheran church’s weekly preaching and her Norwegian family values. That upbringing helps me understand the American people’s visceral attraction to and repulsion by both candidates as I watch the political circus of 2016.

My grandmother’s world is disappearing, and it saddens and scares her. At 19 she married my grandfather when he came of out of the Navy after WWII. She left her family and everything she knew in North Dakota when my grandfather, an electrical engineer, received a positive reply from a classified ad job posting for an engineering position in Cleveland. Eventually he landed a job with Amocams, a division of Amoco Oil, in the western suburbs of Chicago, where the story goes he was on the team that created the first printed circuit boards. He also worked on automating the oil pipelines in North Dakota. He was there when the pipelines were first operated remotely and they no longer needed men to drive hundreds of miles across the plains to manually crank the valves open or closed.

My grandmother, Corinne Halgrimson, visiting her childhood church in Leeds, North Dakota. 2014

Visiting my grandmother’s home today is a journey back in time to the best of the 1950s. My loving aunts are often there, and I am greeted by smiles and hugs and offers of homemade sweets and coffee. Everything is cared for and in its place. At 93 she still irons pillowcases and plans her home’s decorations for each holiday. The Steinway grand piano takes up half of the living room, and the chairs face each other in a way that allows visitors to feel comfortable and see each other well. Her week is planned around church, her quilting group, and the daily letter writing that she depends on now for connection, as her hearing is mostly gone. It’s peaceful, warm, simple and lovely. When I need a pick-me-up, I drive the hour from my home to visit this old-fashioned place that’s full of love.

In contrast, I am a modern Millennial. In my day-to-day world I often feel skeptical and bitter. Like many of those around me I no longer make an effort to wave at neighbors or slow down to let people cross the street.

I think, “Why get married when we can live together?” I have dogs instead of children, I don’t trust anything I hear on TV or in the papers, I work two jobs, resentfully pay for my own overpriced $10,000 deductible health insurance, and my friends pay down student loans for decades and balk at the idea of retirement savings. Many of us Millennials have given up on religion, politics or efforts at community based on anything but drinking. Our world can be very very cold. In this world, meaningless distractions are too accessible and real connections aren’t always worth the effort.

I wonder if Donald Trump’s supporters live in the cold world I often find myself in, but long for my grandmother’s world like I often do. Maybe they long for the goodness of those days so much they’re willing to forgive his many sins on the small chance that his promise to bring back the old way can somehow materialize.

Trump’s campaign resonates with the bitterness in me that’s angry about the changes that have taken place since my grandmother’s time, as well as the part of me that longs for social niceties and politeness, community and uniformity. He appeals to the part of me that says “screw you” to the establishment and those who seem to take and take, that visceral and deeply angry part of me. The Clinton campaign tugs at the hopeful side of me that believes my grandma’s world can still exist among diversity, and that there’s enough for all to go around. It is the side that longs to recreate an even better version of the past for my future children and my potential community.

This election is revealing the intense ideological divide between us, and maybe within us. If we look beyond the political antics and listen deeper, the debate Monday night may as well have been a struggle between the world views of me and my father, and my grandmother, each grasping for survival of their way of life.

Question: Is America great now?

Emily Halgrimson has worked at TMW for more than 8 years. She plans on voting for Hillary Clinton because to her it’s a vote for inclusiveness over hate, experience over fame, an acceptance of inevitable change, and hope for an even better era ahead for all.

Share this post

Selling Out

By Lloyd Graff

I have been studying the process of buying and selling machining businesses for the past year. Companies have approached me to advise them on what to ask for their companies and others have called to find viable options to purchase. Our machinery business, Graff-Pinkert, has helped facilitate many transactions through the years and with baby boomers looking to cash out and other firms anxious to add sales and expertise, the demand for advice is growing briskly.

In this article I’ll give you a taste of what I’ve gleaned.

The market for small businesses, machining and otherwise, is extremely fragmented. Even with the Internet and some nascent business clearinghouse sites, it is disorganized. The market for a Haas VF-2 machining center is much more transparent than the market for companies that run them. Business brokers and advisory firms have traditionally rigged the system, much like real estate brokers on houses, by making it hard to gain visibility for small and medium sized businesses. In a lot of states you theoretically need a license to broker a business, though you do not need one to sell the assets or give advice.

From my observation business brokers who sell funeral homes and barber shops usually are out of their league trying to sell manufacturing companies. Their focus is local. If they are trying to go national they may try a few Internet sites or aim for buyout groups. This is a logical approach for somebody who can’t talk the talk, but it works quite poorly, from my observation, for businesses under $20 million in sales, which is the minimum that private equity groups are normally interested in. The exception is firms who are trying to consolidate a particular niche product. Job shops rarely fit that category.

Despite the fragmentation and the structural impediments of the brokers, buyers and sellers can ultimately find one another by luck, word of mouth, or thoughtful target marketing. Then the question of what a going business is worth comes into play.

A business owner must quickly learn the word “EBITDA” to play the game. It is the universal English code word for “Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.” It gives a picture of a company’s profitability as a percentage of its total revenue. It is a handy way to measure cash flow.

Most potential buyers will pay a multiple of 3-5 times EBITDA for a profitable, stable machining business, but growth potential, customer compatibility and management acumen may push it up. Buyout groups tend to stick to a rigid EBITDA multiple while an operating firm with a specific need may pay a higher multiple.

Buyout groups gobble up a lot of ripe companies because they are proficient at the game and can move fairly quickly. A lot of sellers are looking for a rapid exit, and the buyout firm can oblige. The downside is that they bring in outside management that often screws things up quickly, and they have very little patience. If owners stay on after such buyouts, often the experience is quite ugly. There are many exceptions, but a private equity buyer who is just buying numbers often makes for a mess before they figure things out or the lender calls for the auctioneers.

I haven’t mentioned lawyers in the piece, but you can probably imagine that they often bring a lot of expense and legalistic hand-wringing to justify their fees. Non-disclosure agreements, which are a part of the buy-sell ritual, are often reviewed by lawyers, which usually slows the process but add to their incomes. I think it is difficult to enforce non-disclosure agreements, but they do put potential buyers on notice that they should be discreet, and they allow sellers to veto buyers they distrust.

With all of the impediments it is surprising to see that a lot of small and medium sized machining firms do change hands. It takes time and persistence, and usually some good counsel, but it can be done.

Question: Is it better to grow organically or through acquisition today?

Share this post

Refugee Flavor

By Noah Graff

At the beginning of September I spent some time traveling in Europe in search of lucrative machine tools, good salsa dancing and inspiration for an enlightening blog. These days the flavor of Europe has a bit of Middle Eastern spice thrown in, giving it a richer color and diverse tastes. The following account will give you a brief sample of the Middle Eastern spice that I encountered on my journey while in Denmark and Germany.

I arrived in Copenhagen on a grey day. I caught a taxi at the airport with a grouchy driver from Macedonia. He told me he has lived in Denmark for 30 years and that the only reason he has stayed was the money, as he dislikes Danish culture and Danish people.

After a wonderful much needed shower, understandably the first item on my agenda on my first night in Europe was to go salsa dancing. I’m trying to experience salsa dancing in as many countries as possible for a new blog I am starting. I quickly found that night’s salsa destination on the Web and caught an Uber taxi. The Uber driver’s name was Islam, and he hailed from Jordan. He was a nice guy and we stressed out together about finding the location of the salsa joint. Like my Macedonian driver, he said he came to Denmark just for the money and disliked the country and its people. On the way back to my hotel that night I had a Turkish Uber driver named Selman who had been born in Denmark. Unlike my previous taxi drivers he said liked living in Denmark and Danish people, though he wished he could move out of Copenhagen because he lives in one of the lesser known, dangerous areas of the city. When I asked him how he felt about Middle Eastern refugees in Europe he said he was conflicted. After a brief pause, he said that it was fine with him for immigrants to come into the country, but he believes they should learn to speak Danish and should not isolate themselves in their own communities. My subsequent Uber drivers in Copenhagen included Mohammad (from Spain), Abdelhafid (Morocco), and Shuaib (I can’t remember where he was from). The consensus among them was, “Money in Denmark is good, but there’s no place like home.” My first reaction when I heard this perspective was that these people should be more grateful for the prosperity and safety they have found in a beautiful First World country. The least they could do would be to appreciate the place. But then I tried to put myself in their shoes. What if I was forced to live in Saudi Arabia to earn enough money to feed my family? It is doubtful I would embrace Saudi culture, even with my worldly open mind. I would likely do my best to find an American community with people who would accept me, relate to me and speak my language. Heck, how would I feel if I was forced to go live in rural Mississippi? Maybe I could embrace the culture there, but I’m sure I would miss life in Chicago where I have spent the majority of my life.

Middle Eastern restaurant in Center of Copenhagen, Denmark.

I tasted my next spoonful of Middle Eastern Europe when I went salsa dancing in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart actually has a surprisingly good salsa scene with places to dance almost every night of the week. That night I went dancing at a bar called “7grad.” I walked outside for some air and struck up a conversation with a tall, skinny Arab man who I had seen dancing inside a few minutes before. Ahmad was 29 years old and had come to Stuttgart from Syria 10 years before—he was a pretty decent dancer.

The dude had a lot on his mind. He was enamored with a blond woman inside the bar who we ogled as she danced with another man. Ahmad said he didn’t go out dancing a lot because he felt guilty about going out and having fun while much of his family remained stuck in Syria. When I asked him if any of his relatives had been killed in the war he surprisingly said that they were more or less safe right now because they had money. But still, Ahmad’s relatives remain trapped in Syria, and no matter how much money they have it is always dangerous living in a country besieged by a war that nobody knows how to stop.

An anti-immigrant poster in Berlin, Germany.

I asked him what he thought about the refugee crisis in Europe, and he said that the real solution was to stop the war in Syria—sensible answer I thought. But then when I asked him how to end the war he began muttering some conspiracy theories relating to Jews on Wall Street. I smiled and said something like, “Hey man, I’m Jewish, please stop with the Jewish stuff.” He kept on with the same nonsense but very calmly, more or less ignoring my comment. I again said, “Don’t talk about Jews like that, I’m Jewish.” But after a few minutes the nonsense ended. He had no hostility towards me. It seemed as though it had hardly registered to him that I was Jewish. He was just spouting some garbage he had been told in his community. He reminded me of Mustafa, my guide when I was in Morocco, who back in 2006 casually told my friend and me that Israel had been responsible for destroying the World Trade Center on 9-11. Both men were ignorant but not dangerous for me personally. On the other hand, when such hateful ignorance is widespread it is fuel for the extreme Islamic Terrorism plaguing the world.

But I digress. In a few minutes my conversation with Ahmad went back to talking about his crush on the blond salsa dancer in the bar, with me advising him about the delicate and strange intricacies of picking up salsa dancers. When our conversation ended I was not sure if Ahmad was more confused and stressed out about girl issues or war in the Middle East. I’m sure everyone can attest to the fact that both topics are eternally vexing. Yet I am happy to say that in the end I could tell Ahmad was at least feeling better having vented his anxiety to the wise American Jew.

Question: Would you like to visit Europe?

Share this post

Phone Call to the Dead

By Lloyd Graff

This American Life on NPR routinely does amazing stories on radio. The program, hosted by Ira Glass, recently had this piece that really struck me.

In 2010 a man named Itaru from the town of Otsuchi, Japan, was having a hard time dealing with the loss of his cousin. He decided to install a phone booth with an old rotary dial phone on the grass in his backyard where he could go to communicate with his dead cousin. Most Japanese are Buddhist and generally believe that when people die they don’t instantly get to go to heaven and leave all of their earthly concerns behind. They believe that the dead can see suffering of the family members who are still living and they can be caught in a state of limbo in-between life and death. Itaru’s phone was not actually hooked up to a line, but picking it up and imagining he was talking to his cousin was a way for him to deal with his grief.

One year after Itaru installed the phone booth his town of Otsuchi was devastated by the Tsunami in March of 2011 that killed over 19,000 people in Japan. According to the radio story Otsuchi was the place worst hit by the disaster.

Somehow a buzz about Itaru’s phone booth to communicate with the dead spread around Japan. People started coming from everywhere to the phone booth to talk to their own family members who had died in the tsunami. It has become a shrine of sorts, something like the granite wall in Washington with the names of 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. But this is even more intimate because the people who come to the phone shrine dial their lost family and talk to them as if they are actually on the line.

The reporter for this story is of Japanese origin. She got permission to tape and translate the conversations for the radio piece.

I found calls heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating. People dialed a number like they were calling home and talked to the dead often in a matter of fact way, and sometimes in a sad, regretful way. “Is it cold there?” a man would ask his dead wife. In Japanese culture emotion is rarely expressed overtly, but in the tapes of the calls you could hear the pain and sadness in the most mundane statements and queries.

The conversations (one way, of course) brought tears to my eyes as my wife and I were driving home from the city last Sunday night.

I thought of conversations I wish I had with my parents before they died. I was on a vacation trip with my sister Susan and her family when my mother died suddenly. There was never a chance for a last talk. I would have liked a chance to tell her I loved her deeply.

I do remember a heartfelt talk with my father, visiting him in Florida. We were talking about his wife, my mother, who had died a few years earlier and he said something that struck me with such impact that I still recall it frequently. I thought of it while listening to the “phone call to the dead” show. “I wish I’d given her more jewelry,” he told me.

I asked a therapist about this remark because I wondered why it seemed to bother my father so much. The psychologist interpreted the remark to mean “I wish I gave her more love or sex.” If I could talk to my father today I would ask him to tell me more about the “I wish I gave her more jewelry” comment.

We all have things we’d like to ask the dead or tell the departed. This is the season as we head toward the holidays when we should ask the questions and express our feelings to our loved ones, before we have to make a phone call to the dead.

Question: What would you say in a phone call to the dead?

Share this post

Pig in a Pipe

By Lloyd Graff

If 2012 and 2014 IMTS shows were about the arrival of 3D printing, 2016 was the year of the robot. It seemed like everybody was talking about automation and robotics. Prices are coming down and ease of use is advancing. I had the opportunity to interview Esben Østergaard, the head of Universal Robots of Denmark. The company was sold last year to Teradyne, a technology heavyweight in America, which so far is adding marketing muscle but not interfering with the creativity that made the company. Mr. Østergaardis is now a very rich guy after the firm was sold for $285 million plus earn-outs if it hits profit and sales projections. His big splurge after the deal closed was buying a grand piano. But a few years ago he was living on milk and crackers in the basement of a university after his $200,000 in seed money ran out. He and an associate were desperately trying to build their inexpensive, easily programmed, out of the box robot for industry so they could convince a venture capitalist to back them.

He said the all-out commitment cost him his marriage, but he built his prototype, got some funding, and today he is running a company with 330 employees and trying to hire 10 more people each month.

Esben is tall and wiry with the athletic build of a cyclist. He was born in Iran of Danish parents. He built his first robot when he was 5 years old.

Esben Østergaard, Founder of Universal Robots

His parents were working in the Philippines on a water project in Seibu City. His folks came home one day complaining about a problem of getting cables from the beginning of a pipe to the end. The locals were tying the cable to the leg of a pig and then trying to cajole the oinking animal through the pipe. Young Esben said “you need a robot for the job” and then proposed to build it. He made the crude robot and it did the job. It was the beginning of his career.

His family ended up back in Denmark. Esben Østergaard’s career took another leap in college as his robotics team won a contest associated with soccer’s World Cup in 1998. After graduating college and beginning work on a PhD he headed for Los Angeles for work and study. In 2006, back in Denmark, he started his company on a shoestring in the college basement office.

It all began with a pig in a pipe.


For a show coming on the heels of a brutal report on 2016 machine tool sales, people were surprisingly upbeat at IMTS this year. I did focus on areas that are doing comparatively better than the norm, rotary transfers, Swiss type machining, robotics and 3D printing, but the mood was pretty positive considering the discounting that is widespread in the industry. Part of the comfort level comes from the big cushion that Asian and European builders have baked into their pricing formulas because of the strength of the U.S. dollar compared to their currencies. A 10% discount to an end user will barely move the needle in Tokyo or Cologne. The home office wants to move the iron.


During my two days at IMTS the only black people I saw were McCormick Place employees. I saw thousands of people in the booths and the aisles, but not one black person with a badge. The irony is that there are lots of black people working on the shop floor in America and many have well-paying jobs, but they are not decision makers who own businesses or have a lot of influence on buying choices.

It is ironic that the politicians tout manufacturing as the vehicle to bring good jobs to the African American community. My conclusion is that for many reasons black people are disinterested in manufacturing and white supervisory people have been unwilling or unsuccessful in bringing them into key roles. This is more a commentary than a criticism. There is a huge disconnect between upwardly mobile young black people and the manufacturing community. IMTS is a dramatic manifestation of the gulf.

The absence of black people in manufacturing’s elites was stark. The absence of women was obvious also. There were many women with badges on the floors of the show, primarily in marketing and administration, but very few in sales, engineering or management. We can attribute this to the legacy of educational patterns as well as gender choice and bias. The practice of hiring women for IMTS to be eye candy has diminished over time, but is still employed by some firms. Tsugami had a beautiful young model trolling the edges of its booth, seemingly engaging the curious men quite successfully.

IMTS is a bastion of white men over 40. It probably always will be. It’s a part of America I love because it’s so constant and reliable and safe. But I reject it, rationally, because it seems so backward and yesterday compared to the bigger country I live in every day.

Question: Who won the debate last night?

Share this post

The Cubs of Casablanca

By Lloyd Graff

The Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, and Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite movies, share so many common threads. One could say they are cut from the same cloth. Strangely enough, they really are.

The movie’s screenplay was written by twin brothers Phillip and Julius Epstein. Cubs president, and chief architect, Theo Epstein is the grandson of Phillip Epstein.

The Epsteins did not create the script for the movie, it was an adaptation of an unpublished play written in 1939. Theo Epstein did not create the Chicago Cubs, he took an organization that was going nowhere in 2012 when he came in to rebuild the team. He inherited some decent players like Ryan Dempster who he traded for an unknown minor league pitcher named Kyle Hendricks who might win the Cy Young Award this year.

Phillip and Julius Epstein

The Epstein brothers were free agent writers who were brought in and paid $30,000 to rescue the script which had been started by Howard Koch but was considered unusable by Hal B. Wallis, the brilliant producer of Casablanca. Wallis had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman for the leads, but he knew the script was broken, just like Theo Epstein knew he had great position players in June of 2016 but had a mediocre bullpen. He knew he needed relievers to improve the odds of winning a World Series. In a dynamite trade he sent a potential star from the Cubs A-ball minor league team to the New York Yankees for flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.

This was a difficult choice for Theo Epstein, the baseball purist, who had built the Cubs with players of great character and grit like cancer survivors Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, and white bread stars like Kris Bryant who has never tasted alcohol, and Ben Zobrist, whose wife travels the country as a Christian singing icon. Theo is a lot like Bogart’s Rick Blaine who was conflicted by love, patriotism, and the demands of running a popular gambling joint in Vichy occupied Morocco. Rick held the ultimate prize during war, “letters of transit,” that were stolen by a murdered thief. Those letters meant freedom for two desperate people that he could choose, most likely himself and the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa).

Theo has had his moral conflicts this season. Aroldis Chapman is an accused abuser of women, but he can throw a baseball 105 miles per hour, left handed. He is the most feared relief pitcher in the game. He was deemed the piece the team had to have even if he is no saint. Like in war, in a baseball season sometimes you compromise your ethical standard for the greater good – life, victory, a World Series.

Theo Epstein is a twin, just like his grandfather and great uncle. His brother is a guidance counselor back in his home town, Boston, but his professional brother, Jed Hoyer, is his fellow architect of the Cubbies. They both came to the team via San Diego and then Boston. The folklore of Casablanca says that the Epstein brothers were struggling to come up with a conclusion for the screenplay which would tie up the loose ends. Supposedly Ingrid Bergman didn’t even know which man she would ultimately end up with when she made the movie, her husband the freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo, or her passionate lover of the past, Rick.

The climax of the movie takes place at the Casablanca airport (actually filmed at Van Nuys Airport in California). The plane is waiting. Rick holds the “letters of transit” and the Nazis are coming. Rick gives the precious documents to Victor and commands Ilsa to go with her husband for the greater good of the world. The Nazi Colonel, Strasser, arrives to stop the plane and Rick shoots him.

The Epstein brothers were allegedly discussing the ending while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood. They came to a stop and suddenly both twins yelled out simultaneously “Round up the usual suspects,” the famous line of Inspector Renault the corrupt French police commandant. It meant Rick was off the hook for killing the Nazi officer.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer do not know how the Cubs season will end. The odds say the Cubs have a one in four chance to go all the way. Those odds haunt Theo, the workaholic perfectionist. But one thing is for sure, this year the Cubs are much more than just the “usual suspects.”

Question: Will this be the year for the Cubs?

Share this post

The Foot Soldiers of IMTS

By Lloyd Graff

On Wednesday I went to IMTS. It was going to be a 16-hour marathon because we were taking folks out to dinner after the business day, and had a 30-mile drive each way in bumper-to-bumper Chicago traffic. Emily Halgrimson, my associate at Today’s Machining World, drove, which eased my apprehension about the day. But for somebody who has had a lot of health issues, at 71, a 16-hour day in the endless din of McCormick Place is a challenge to negotiate.

I framed it in my head before I left my house. “I get to do this,” I said to myself, and I really believed it, too, but I knew it would be exhausting, even if it was exciting and exhilarating at times.

This is the hard part of aging for me. I want to do IMTS. I almost have to go to see clients and stay current, but it is physically very demanding, even for much younger people. For the folks who draw the job of setting up the exhibits for the big displays it is a 3-4 week trial by fire. Complicated machines with a million things that can go wrong are shipped by flatbeds to McCormick Place where union guys do the unloading and placement. For some of the big players like Okuma, Mazak and Haas, budgets are in the multi-millions of dollars. There are always last minute snafus and virtually every company is running up to the deadline to prepare for IMTS.

Mickey Tajariol, who runs ZPS Corporation of Zlin, Czech Republic, told me their new machine the “Penta” a fascinating and innovative multi-spindle bar machine, was completed two days before it had to be loaded in a container.

At Hydromat, the rotary transfer machine builder in St. Louis, their new larger Eclipse CNC station prototype was still in need of a sheet metal protective cover a day before shipment to Chicago. Bruno Schmitter, who runs the company, gave his approval only after sitting and then bouncing on the painted cover himself and then checking for any dents. It passed the Schmitter test, and was shipped.

Lloyd Graff next to a car body and chassis made with additive technology in a couple days at Oak Ridge Tennessee lab.

Mindy Mikami of Okuma in Charlotte had a major role in getting their massive exhibit to Chicago. How they not only got the enormous double column machining center reassembled in the front of aisle 8500 in the South Building is a McCormick Place Miracle. I invited Mindy out for ice cream or a drink on the Friday before the show to renew acquaintance, but she was working until later than I could stay in the city.

To me, the folks who work the show day after day, set it up and tear it down, are heroic. For the big builders particularly, IMTS is their main face to the public. It’s their chance to shine. It is a great chance to reconnect with customers and attract new potential buyers. It confirms their technical capability to a probing herd of potential doubters.

Big exhibitions like IMTS and EMO in Europe force the builders to continue to innovate. The Internet or even a showroom does not ratchet up the adrenaline like a competitive circus does. The feedback and questions during IMTS force changes in the prototypes when they are sent back to the factories. I think IMTS also fosters great camaraderie in the team and exposes the players who cannot or will not sacrifice for the group.

I believe everybody should do a few trade shows during their working career. And if you do not have the “privilege” of working a show, I strongly recommend that you walk IMTS or something similar for a couple of days, not just to appreciate the iron, but also the heroic foot soldiers who make it all come together.

Question: What’s your most memorable IMTS experience?

Share this post