Monthly Archives: December 2011

Industry Scuttlebutt

I was in Northeast Indiana last week for a press junket promoting the manufacturing sector of the region. The first company we visited was the General Motors plant in Roanoke, IN, a 716 acre facility with 35,000 employees where they build light and heavy pickup trucks–476 trucks in an eight hour period we were told. Our guide Mike Glinski, manager of Fort Wayne Assembly, a GM employee of 26 years, really impressed me with his presentation. He was one of the best speakers on the trip and we were all pleasantly surprised how relaxed he was about letting us shoot photos and video as we toured the line. He said the facility even gives tours to the public with an appointment.

I couldn’t believe how immaculate the facility was. The operation was well organized and highly automated. One topic that was discussed as we toured the different companies on the trip was Indiana’s strong political movement toward a “Right to Work Policy,” which would allow employees to work at any business without having to be in a union. A GM plant with employees not in the UAW just sounds unfathomable. But stranger things have happened right? After all, they took out the lard and then the trans fats from Oreos and they’re still delicious (and kosher!). In any case, Glinski’s intelligence and openness, along with the positive vibes I got touring the factory gives me optimism that GM is finally taking the steps to compete in today’s lean economy.

Best to check out the video below to get a better sense of the place.


Wearing both my reporter and machinery dealer hats on the tour in Indiana I asked some of my presenters about what types of equipment they were buying lately. At one shop specializing in medical implants, the president  told me he was shying away from buying Mori Seiki lathes because after the U.S. partnership with DMG he had lost trust in the organization and customer support of the company. Most agree that DMG’s equipment is some of the best available worldwide, but they’ve always been notorious for weak customer support in the U.S. Merging with Mori Seiki was supposed to raise the company’s game in that respect, not pull down Mori Seiki’s.

But the next day we went to C & A Tool, a diversified, successful job shop (many times referenced in Today’s Machining World). The people at C & A told me the company had recently purchased several DMG machine tools, which they love. Their rationale for buying the DMG machines–C & A engineers had gained confidence in DMG after it had combined forces with Mori Seiki. So the merger of the two machine tool companies is working sometimes.


Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un is about to replace his deceased despot father. One of the few things people know about Kim Jong-un is that he’s a huge NBA fan, a Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan fan in particular. Supposedly the Jongs had a huge full court in the backyard of their palace, and when Kim Jong-un was allegedly studying in Switzerland many people remarked that basketball was one of his main uses of spare time. If Obama and Kim Jong-un ever end up meeting, the two leaders at least have one common passion on which to relate to each other. Maybe they can just settle their differences over a game of one on one.


Happy to say that the Today’s Machining World blogs are getting plenty of traffic and comments lately. We often are surprised by the reactions of our readers and we get to learn a lot from their perspectives. For instance, when Lloyd wrote the blog about Newt Gingrich, we received a high number of comments by people saying they couldn’t support him because of his gun control politics. When we published the blog, Newt’s politics on gun control hadn’t even crossed our minds as an issue people would comment on, let alone that it would be a deal breaker for votes. The opinions were so strong it reminded me of an abortion rights debate.

Question: Was the Iraq War worth it?

Videos of General Motors plant in Roanoke, IN


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A Day in the Life of a Job Shop Guy

The “old gal” W&S #4

“Mike” owns a small job shop in South Carolina. He started from scratch building a machining business from a turret lathe and a mill. He loves the business and asked to write a column about life on the front lines of the machining world, clawing to make a few bucks, sometimes just holding on. -Lloyd

This week’s been rough. If we were playing Blackjack I’d be in “stay” mode, knowing that if I “hit” I’d go bust, but not sure this “13” is going to pull me through.

The life of a Charlie Brown screw machine shop is getting more tense as the holidays draw close. Of course we are up against deadlines with customers’ projects as the year draws to a close, but most of the stress will come from the money, or maybe a lack of it. It’s happened pretty much every year of the 18 years I’ve been in business. But we have pulled it off. But that doesn’t seem like much of a consolation as I look over at my wife Laura. I can see that oh-too-familiar look—you know it, that worried, uncertain, getting ready to ask me the same question for the fourth time today look.

This week Laura’s out in the shop operating our Fanuc Robo-drill on a second op. job. Lucky for me I’m on a turning center right across from her. Laura wears many hats here. From accounts payable, receivable, invoicing, and bookkeeping, to being my best machine operator and maintenance mechanic. I like to hold the position of “Janitor” (my self-proclaimed title when anyone asks what my function is here at the shop). It’s roughly two weeks from Christmas and she knows all too well about our account receivable status. You see, this shop is flying by the seat of its pants at the moment. We’re standing out there on a limb. But what worries Laura is that not only are she and I out there, 100 feet up in the air standing on a 1″ diameter limb on a weeping willow tree 15 feet away from the trunk in gale force winds, but that there are people living right under this stress cracked branch that I’m jumping up and down on like a 500 ton obi press at work.

There are a few people that work for us, that depend on us, for their livelihoods and their Christmas. It’s a tight ship right now, and we depend on our customers to pay us promptly so we can keep the ball rolling. As quick reassurance I stop the chuck boring operation I’m doing on some soft jaws and take Laura in the office, scan over the office computer, and for a minute go over the finances. “See,” I say, “even if nothing else comes in, and I’m sure something will, there is enough to pull it off, money wise to take care of the little bonus’s and buy the Butterballs and handle our business.” And with a lower voice I say, “uh… we will just be a little light personally, so, uh… forget that new GMC Dually I asked for, ha-ha-ha.” Of course she didn’t find this funny and I had to hear, “how it’s always the same, every year! Barely getting by!” I then quickly change the subject about how I liked the lighted wreath she put on the shop entrance door, and quickly things go back to semi-sane.

Its lunchtime now and on Fridays we usually run out for lunch. Laura likes this little lunch spot right up the street called Alfies, a sort of upscale mom and pop type place, old school, a rarity in this area—they have the best tuna melts. As I go out to wash up I stop to talk with Brad, our shop foreman of sorts. Brad’s not a machinist by trade, but he’s been with me on and off for over 16 years. He’s one of those guys you can trust with anything. I tell him to “kill the Double Ought until I get back, it’s running and I’m down to my last circular cutoff.” I’d rather wait and keep my ear out for it when I get back. So I’m home free, for lunch that is.

Well wouldn’t you know, I spoke too soon. As I enter the office I see Danny standing there speaking with Laura and holding what looks to be some sort of giant lollipop. Danny is a local guy that owns a fairly large fabrication shop. He specializes in larger welding projects for chemical plants in the area, and primarily works with stainless steel. Danny recently got work from a local aircraft manufacturer, in one of those unfortunate “who you know gets the work” scenarios. He gets a good deal of work from this customer, and about a year or so ago started coming to me with any machining needs for these projects. Most of the work was not a good fit for us at the time, but I have become accustomed to a “do what ever comes your way” mindset in this economy. And most of it really isn’t that bad, just milling work, though a little large for our capacity, and low quantities.

Danny always needs it “right now.” I think he has no clue what it takes to precision machine a piece of 316 stainless that’s maybe 3″ thick and 36″ long. To top it off, he always waits until the last minute to get in touch with me, so it’s very hard to schedule. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to stay in business in this “new order” machining world then you need idle equipment. Ironically, you need everything else running wide open and pumping out parts as fast it can.

Those lollipops he brought in through me for a loop. Danny went on to explain that he’s in a jam. These 10 parts are hangers for the job we finished yesterday. They’re basically just ½” diameter 316 SS round bar, and they have a 6″ diameter eye rolled around the end. The shanks are 30″ long, and they need a ½-13 thread cut, 10″ of thread. Danny says, “No big deal for ya, I know you’s the screw machine guy.” “Danny!” I said, “why the hell didn’t you bring the stock over, let me thread it, and then you could have rolled the eye on the end?” Danny started, “I thought I could thread ’em with a die, you know, save me a little something for Christmas. Damn die couldn’t do nothing!”

Now you have to remember, we are in the South, and Danny is a hard-boiled good ole’ boy. You have to adapt to all kinds, and who am I to question his five-man shop with sales in excess of $5 million annually? Then he says he’s got to deliver at 3pm, (It’s now 12:30) and all hopes of that tuna melt have left the building with Elvis. “I’ll just wait on ‘em. I know you can knock ’em right out.” So I’m looking hard at this part. Bare with me now and visualize. An I-bolt, ½” in diameter shank, 6″ diameter eye, and over 3 feet long. I’m thinking, how the hell am I going to thread this? Not to mention doing it with one of my biggest pet peeves, a frickin’ studio audience!

By this time my lovely bride is in tune with my mental condition and softly offers to run up to McDonald’s and bring me something back. Okay, I’m running out of time, I don’t have a lathe with a large enough hole for the 6″ eye to sit in the spindle so I can thread, you know, spot a center, and hold with the tailstock, and single point. Obviously, I can’t cut the thread with a geometric head, because I can’t chuck up the part.

Then all of the sudden, while staring at my old girl in the back, (no, not Laura) the redneck rocket scientist in me kicks in. Who’s the old gal you ask? Well she is my old Warner & Swasey #4 turret lathe. She’s old, she’s green, she’s a ram type, and she’s not easy on the eyes, but damn she’s one of the most useful pieces of iron ever made. I quickly fasten the ¾” Geometric head in the 10″ Cushman chuck, I then move the turret saddle all the way back. I grab a ER-32 collet drill holder and fasten the part stationary through the turret hole and into the drill holder on the other side.

I’m thinking I’ll spin the Geometric head in the chuck and feed the part through, tripping the dead stop on the turret. I’ve never tried this before, but what choice do I have? Well, in about 30 minutes we had 10 beautiful ½-13 threaded 316 SS I-bolts. Danny said, “Damn I knew ’em screw machines could do it.” Whew, and another one bites the dust.

Later that night at home we were putting the final touches on the Christmas tree and my son and I were on the floor assembling my grandfather’s old Lionel trains around the tree. My son picked up an old switch engine locomotive, probably dating back to the late 1930s and said, “Look at all these parts in here Dad, all made in a machine shop.” And I could only think of Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail during her last voyage. I thought to myself, “That’s right Mike, you’re a machinist. Is there really anything better in the world?”

Question: I What was the best thing that happened to you this week?

Question II: Could you work with your wife?

Note: Do you have something to say and want a chance to be published? Consider writing for TMW. Email 

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Tim Tebow. Enough Already?

Tim Tebow praying

I’ve been anxious to see Tim Tebow, the controversial Denver Broncos quarterback people love to hate because he is unabashedly committed to his religious faith and fearlessly shows it to the cynical press and doubters.

Tebow had been relentlessly mocked in Chicago going into Sunday’s game with the Bears, but once again he led an amazing comeback in the last few minutes to get to overtime and then win during the extra period. Tebow’s performance was miserable through the first three quarters, and terrific in the fourth. The Bears helped Denver by making bonehead plays and playing soft, “not to lose” football. Tebows’s Broncos have now won seven out of eight with Tebow as quarterback after starting the season 0-4 with Kyle Orton (now gone).

I was extremely eager to see the game because Tim Tebow has gotten so much press, mostly negative. America is so cynical about everything today. My view of pro-football has been shaped by movies like Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday, and the novel Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkins. Tebow is the anti anti-hero. Supposedly, Urban Meyer, the head football coach at the University of Florida, where Tebow won the Heisman as a sophomore, had his quarterback checked out by an investigator to see if he was who he said he was. Tebow, the devout Christian who put the number of Bible verses on the adhesive eye-black patches he wore, checked out.

Tebow occasionally goes to one knee to thank God during a game and will exalt by looking to the sky and lifting both arms like signaling his thanks to the Lord for a score.

Honestly, I was set to dislike him because I don’t think God really follows the NFL, but after watching him play I have to love the kid. Not for his authentic devotion to his God, but for his leadership and belief in himself on the field.

In the final quarter of the Bears/Broncos game you had a team with belief in itself, and a team with doubt.

Bill Parcells, the great coach, has said that in most games there is a moment when one team perseveres and the other gives up its belief in itself. This happened last Sunday. The Bears had the game, but inexplicably the veteran running back Marian Barber ran out of bounds when all he had to do was fall down to keep the clock moving.  The Bears had to punt, leading 10-7, but knowing that they faced a Denver team led by Tim Tebow that knew in its heart that it was going to win. And they did, with a last second tying field goal and an overtime field goal.

I rooted for the Bears, but I loved watching Tebow confidently lead players who obviously believed in him, and themselves.

Tebow does not have the great technical skills as a quarterback of an Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady, but he brings a palpable, authentic, belief to the playing field. You can feel an aura, even watching him on TV. A leader with authentic belief is a beautiful thing to observe. It doesn’t mean Tim Tebow, with a flawed throwing motion, is going to win the Super Bowl this year. But who am I to doubt it? The doctors said I had a slim chance of survival when I entered the hospital in heart failure three years ago.

Question: Do you think Tebow should restrain his religious demonstrations on the field?

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Is College a Waste of Time and Money?

I had an opportunity to interview James Altucher, a writer, Web guy, venture capitalist, stock picker, who has a big following as a blogger. We discussed a lot of topics, but the one I found most provocative was his view of the importance of college for most young people.

Altucher thinks the notion of 18 year olds heading off to five years of college and piling up huge debt is dumb. He looks back on his time at Cornell and wonders why he did college. This was the same conclusion Steve Jobs arrived at when he went to Reed College for one semester and Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard. The real world offered much more interesting opportunities than the overpriced Academy. Yet I see my nieces and nephews following the crowd to undergraduate life and applications holding strong, even during periods of economic stress.

I admit I followed the masses to college as did my children, and things worked out okay. But tuitions were more manageable then and the employment prospects more visible for college grads.

Today I like the Israel model of military service at 19 and then a few years of travel, followed by college for those who are motivated. I’m not convinced the military is for everybody, but a year of public service or charitable endeavor after high school makes sense. Even the missionary model of the Mormons is appealing because the young people who do something extremely hard like bringing their message to Mongolia emerge more confident.

College directly out of high school may be a luxury wasted on the young.

Question: Do you think a university experience is worth the money today?

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Industry Scuttlebutt

If Mitt Romney does decently in Iowa and wins New Hampshire he has the Republican nomination. If Newt Gingrich wins Iowa and is respectable in New Hampshire he has a chance to be the nominee. If Newt is the nominee, Barack Obama gets four more years to fight with Congress and Carterize his presidency. Anybody for a third party?


Bud Pohlman died last week. He saw the future of high production turning in the Hydromat rotary transfer machine manufactured in Switzerland by Pfiffner. In his way he was a visionary in the screw machine world in America.


Looking at the positive, manufacturing is skyrocketing. Seemingly headed for a 14 million car pace. Automotive suppliers are going nuts trying to keep up. The unemployment rate is down sharply. Pundits are confused. Retail sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday were out of sight. What’s going on? People are working part time, on contract, off the books, etc., screwing up the traditional employment/unemployment numbers. The statisticians have not caught up. Revisions are all over the place. Don’t trust the employment numbers. Look at the sales. People are gaming the government and it’s hard to blame them because the government does not pay us back fair value. There are a lot of people not paying their mortgage. Some of them were standing in line Thanksgiving night waiting for the $200 flat screen for their next apartment paid for with cash generated in a part-time job (off the books).


Measured over many metrics like unemployment, health insurance coverage, percentage of residents with a high school diploma, debt ratings, etc. California is the worst governed state and Wyoming is the best. Would you rather live in San Francisco or Cheyenne?


Interesting anomaly. The United States has many positive trends now. Lower rate of violent crime, less family debt, lower rate of abortion, less drug addiction among young people. The country is repairing itself while government is in disrepair. But not everywhere. In Chicago we are seeing Rahm Emanuel take over from Rich Daley, transforming the perception and probably the reality of governance almost overnight. The public employee unions are backpedaling, the Teachers Union hardly knows what hit it, the patronage corruption system is being dismantled, and the budgets are being chopped. It looks like we elected the wrong Chicago politician to be President.


Look for more businesses being bought and sold in manufacturing in 2012. As skilled workers get harder to hire, new vendors harder to vet, and China less of a factor, baby boomers are going to be selling to companies and groups with access to credit. I look for the earnings multiple to rise significantly this year on buyouts and boomers taking advantage to solve succession and retirement desires.


What does America do if (when) Iran gets a nuclear weapon or gets to the position they could build one in a week? This is the military and foreign policy problem that we will face soon and there seemingly is no credible way out. Even a revolution in Iran may not stop the momentum toward nuclearization. I cannot imagine a U.S. preemptive strike, but Israel might move with or without an American wink.

The big fear is not so much that Iran attacks Israel as much as they might pass the bomb to Hezbollah, Hamas or Al Qaeda. That is a Jack Bauer scenario. Now we really need a prescient CIA.

Question: Would you vote for Newt Gingrich?

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