Monthly Archives: September 2013

My Germany – Salsa and Screw Machines

By Noah Graff

German Messerschmitt Me 262: First Ever Jet-powered Fighter Plane (Missing Swastika)

I recently spent two weeks traveling through Germany, visiting various screw machine shops and dealers. Before I began visiting customers, I took the opportunity to spend my first weekend in the country as a tourist in Munich. I chose to start the trip in Munich because the first annual Munich Salsa Congress was taking place. (I try to go salsa dancing in every place I travel for work.) I also had read that the city was beautiful and ranked as one of the best places to live in the world. And I planned to visit Dachau, the concentration camp only a half hour out of town. I had never been to a concentration camp, so as a Jew, I felt going there was the right thing to do.

Before I left, I asked my dad what he knew about Munich, as I regard him as well traveled and generally quite culturally literate. My father’s answer was that Munich made him think of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, and the dreadfully tragic 1972 Olympics held there, during which Palestinian terrorists murdered nine Israelis. But I went in with an open mind, maybe because those things had happened before I was born. I was excited about the salsa dancing, seeing the famous beer garden in the city’s English Garden, and anticipating the rush I get from traveling internationally. It’s so refreshing to me to walk around in a place where people don’t speak English, don’t use dollars, and think and act differently than Americans.

Despite that I was running on fumes after two hours of sleep over the last 36 hours, I hit Munich’s sights right away. I visited the Deutsches Museum, a museum dedicated to German engineering with a lot of emphasis on aircraft history. I thought it was only fitting that I should go to an engineering museum in Germany, on a trip dedicated to visiting German manufacturers.

One display that caught my eye was an Me 262 jet fighter plane from WWII (the first jet fighter ever used) , which curiously was missing the swastika decal on its tail. People told me prior to the trip, that in Germany–as well as some other European countries–you can be jailed for wearing a swastika. Although that first seemed strange to me, coming from the Land of the Free, I get it. The law may stem from the fear that the icon could somehow fuel a renaissance of Naziism–the government doesn’t want to take any chances, even if it infringes on freedom of expression. Later that day, in a store window, I noticed some old coins from WWII that had little white stickers on them, which I realized were covering small swastikas. Seeing the stickers after just seeing the altered airplane decal was slightly unsettling to me. It made me ponder if the people in Munich were trying to forget their horrific past. But the swastika represents the darkest period of the country, which German people are repeatedly taught to feel ashamed of. Can I blame them for not wanting to look it on a daily basis?

The Road to Dachau Concentration Camp

Sunday, my final day in Munich, I visited Dachau. I felt a little strange asking people at the train station how to get there. Were they thinking, “that tourist must be going to the concentration camp”? I learned that Dachau is actually the name of a small village, with its own train stop a half hour from Munich. When I arrived at the stop, I had to walk about 30 minutes to reach the camp. There was a bus from the train station, but I didn’t know when it would come, and I decided it would be more fitting to walk from the station, like the prisoners had to 70 years ago. Before I arrived at the camp, I was taken aback by all the normal homes throughout the town. There were nice modern condos a mere 200 feet from the camp gates. Does it bother people to look at the rusty barbed wire fence outside the camp every day? I’m not sure. Would it bother me to see a plantation in Georgia where Americans were enslaved for centuries? I must admit, I think I might get used to it.

Exploring the camp was moving, as I expected, but I didn’t break down in tears as I walked in the crematorium where the bodies were disposed of, saw the “showers” and the cramped barracks. It was a surreal experience. It was hard to believe I was actually there, standing in the place where all of the horrific atrocities occurred against my ancestors. It made all of the Holocaust stories I had read about and seen in movies more real–that was important. But I must confess, I cried more watching Schindler’s List.

**************

Aside from the hotel desk clerks in Munich, who were somewhat cold and disinterested in my tourist questions, I really liked the people I met throughout Germany. The machine shop owners I visited were generous with their time, took me out to lunch, and gave me a thorough education on how running a business in Germany works. (It’s tough. We forget how good we have it here.) Unfortunately, most of the guys I visited usually don’t buy used machines, but they treated me with respect and maybe they will give me the time of day if I can find them an INDEX MS 32. (There is another blog coming soon specifically about my visits with customers.)

I drove all over the country, traveling around Stuttgart, then up to Cologne. On the way to Cologne, I spent the night in Karlsruhe, a medium-sized university city. The place was dead by the time I sought out food around 10:30 p.m. Every restaurant was closed aside from a little kebab shop, likely owned by Turkish folk. Germany is full of wonderful kebab shops run by its considerable Middle Eastern population.

In the restaurant, I met a German college student named Christoph who helped me order my kebab, because I wanted to tell the guys at the counter not to add yogurt, but they didn’t speak English. For the next half hour we ate our delicious kebabs, talking about German culture and politics. He told me about the Germans’ shame from the Holocaust, saying that until Germany’s 2006 World Cup victory, the people were even bashful about waving German flags. He also talked about the generational differences among Germans, and the country’s complex views of Israel.

Salsa Dancing in Berlin

One of the highlights of the trip was that I got to go salsa dancing in Munich, Cologne and Berlin. I was quite impressed with the dancers. The women were able to follow my L.A. salsa style, even though they generally only knew the very different Cuban style. I am blatantly stereotyping now, but when I think of German people, I think of people with a high technical aptitude and people who are willing to follow rules. Perhaps those characteristics made the German women such good salsa dancers. In any case, they know what they’re doing. I’ll be happy to go back there soon.

Question: What do you think of when you think of Germany?
Noah Graff is a machine tools dealer at Graff-Pinkert & Co. and an editor at Today’s Machining World.

Share this post

Apples, Oranges and Lathes

By Lloyd Graff.

Nicholas Kohart’s company makes components for the natural gas industry in his manufacturing plant near Philly. Business is brisk, though the shale boom has changed his product mix. He is now in the market for a 2” capacity CNC lathe (might go a little bigger) with live tooling and sub-spindle. He runs mostly aluminum but has some projects coming up using stainless.

Nick is not wedded to a particular builder. He knows he will buy a new lathe and he wants a capable local distributor. He contacted me to find a Web site that had candid user reviews of machine tools, and I did not know of any.

He asked me my opinion on which machine to buy. He has bids from Mazak, Okuma, Doosan and Haas. I told him they were all good builders, but I could only give him a view from my world of used machinery, which is one way to gauge how users feel about equipment. I also recommended that he join the Precision Machined Parts Association (PMPA) and get on its Listserve to pose his question to its participants, particularly to find feedback on the quality of the service nationally and locally.

Nick told me that Mazak and Okuma were priced almost identically, Doosan was $50,000 less, and Haas was $100,000 less than the two Japanese builders.

I offered this opinion. If you kept the Haas lathe for 10 years and then resold it for 50% of acquisition cost, it would be hard to turn down the Haas price advantage. Nick already has a Haas vertical machining center he loves. Also, Haas has shrewdly backed the Penn State machine tool program through the years, which enhances the knowledge base of Haas in the area.

I told him my primary reservation about a Haas is that it might not be robust enough for stainless.

I pose these questions to the 55,000 of you who might see this blog.

Question 1: Where would you look for honest reviews of current CNC lathes?

Question 2: Which brand of lathe would you buy if you were Nick?

Share this post

All Hail Bernanke

By Lloyd Graff.

Conventional wisdom says that if you pour money into the American economy it causes inflation.

I am really wondering if this “wisdom” is economists replaying a scenario in their minds that is now obsolete in the silicon age. The theory of scarcity of raw materials, scarcity of housing, scarcity of talent, scarcity of bananas or Berettas is proving to be flawed.

The general trend for most prices in the economy is steady to down. In the world I live in, price increases are always challenged. CNC machines have improved and decreased in price. Hourly rates have stagnated, and total labor costs per unit have trended down.

People speculated on coal but got blindsided by expanding domestic natural gas. Corn peaked at $8 a barrel and now it is at $4.70. Housing prices are supposedly edging up, but I do not see it. So much supply is waiting in the wings it is hard to imagine a surge. Homes are selling because people will now accept lower selling prices. It costs less to make comparable sweatshirts in South Carolina than India according to a recent featured New York Times article.

The theory of endless inflation was a Malthusian myth. In an age of minimal population growth in many countries, the real scarcity is in people.

China, or the next China, still keeps a lid on the price of manufactured goods. Technology may allow us to manufacture food in the next decade, so the bump in farmland prices may be temporary.

We get swings in popularity. Two decades ago, suburban land was hot. Today, cities are more desirable and suburban properties can go begging. If there is price appreciation in property it is local.

I think Ben Bernanke has been a brilliant Fed Chairman in pouring dollars into the economy. Certainly savers have been hurt, but we have had barely any inflation and we avoided a depression. May his successor enjoy such success.

Question: Are you more afraid of inflation or deflation in the American economy?

Lloyd Graff is Owner and Chief Space Filler at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert & Co.

Share this post

My Feelings About Gas

By Lloyd Graff.

I listened to President Obama’s speech on Syria Wednesday. It shook me up, particularly the line about the children who were gassed and “never woke up.”

I woke up at 4:30 am in a cold sweat and I could not go back to sleep. I saw the images of the poor gassed children in their burial white sheaths. And then I remembered my moment under the showers that spewed the Zyklon B gas at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

I was a concentration camp “tourist” at Majdanek, which is inside the Polish city of Lublin. The Germans did not put the killing camps in out of the way places. Dachau, which my son Noah visited a few days ago, is 25 minutes from Munich.

The “showers” at Majdanek were just a few steps from the barracks where people slept before being gassed to death. The ovens – crematoria – were also close by. Efficiency, Nazi style.

One thing I learned in my visit during the winter of early 1999 was that Jews were not the only ones exterminated. The mentally challenged, homosexuals, gypsies, criminals, malcontents and protesting priests were all herded into Hitler’s camps.

We got to Majdanek, a small group from Chicago that I joined while on a business trip to Poland, late one snowy afternoon. I shed my coat, then my sweater and shirt while the others moved into the buildings. I wanted to feel the chill to my bones. It hurt – a little – but it was nothing like the shower room. I just stared at the showerheads, mesmerized by their ordinariness. I felt like puking, but I didn’t. I just stared and imagined. And then I walked away.

When Obama talked about “the children who never woke up” I returned to Poland in my mind. Syria seems a long way from America, but Assad’s atrocity must not go unpunished. People speculate that a few well-placed bombs at Auschwitz might have saved many more lives than they would have cost. A drone strike on Assad’s palace might well be the wakeup call that could end the carnage and force him to give up the gas.

I will never forget Majdanek. The civilized world should never forget the 1,400 gassed to death in Syria.

Question: Should the U.S. punish Assad?

Lloyd Graff is Owner and Chief Space Filler at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert & Co.

Share this post

Drinking the Kool … Coffee

By Lloyd Graff.

I was out in Palo Alto visiting my daughter and made a call on my new favorite coffee shop, Philz Coffee. The Philz approach to coffee makes Starbucks seem like a crude imposter, and I don’t think Starbucks is all that bad at what they do. But Philz is what Starbucks started out as, before it lost its way and corporatized, and before Howard Schultz wanted to own a pro-basketball team in Seattle and have books written about him.

Philz was started by Phil Jabar 10 years ago, and the original location was in a corner grocery shop he owned. He had been experimenting with coffee blends for 25 years and wanted a store as quirky as he was. Today he has 13 locations in the Bay area and the two that I’ve tried are always crazy busy.

The coffee is different because each cup is a Philz mixture of flavors. No lattes or cappuccinos, and though his drinks taste similar to such creations – they are different. Each cup is brewed individually with a filtered water drip process. The barista adds the sugar, or milk, or soy, or celery salt – you name it – to make the drink to your taste. It is less acidic than other coffees and the concoctions are screwy and wonderful.

But the real differentiating aspect of the Philz coffee experience is the warmth and engagement of everybody who works there.

Starbucks began with this approach of developing its people, but the fattening of the behemoth has diluted the experience. Philz is seemingly all-in on the people side. It’s Web site goes on almost ad nauseam about its emphasis on genuinely friendly, helpful team members, but the amazing thing is that they really do believe in it. They honestly drink the Kool … excuse me … coffee they make.

When I went to one last week I just had to burst out and say, “you’re all so nice here.” The lovely young woman at the register said, “Look up at the wall. That’s our mission.” Printed in huge type it said “The Philz Mission, Better People’s Day.

This place really seems to live its motto. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all did.

Question: Do you still do Starbucks?

Share this post

Member of the Tribe

By Lloyd Graff.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, is terrible again this year — like last year, and the year before. They haven’t won a World Series in more than a century.

But I still follow them. I still check the results – every night. I still check the batting averages. Believe it or not, I research the minor leaguers too. They are our hope – our “stars of the future.”

Why do I do this? Why do I care so much? I mean, I checked the score before I went in for heart surgery.

I am a bloody fanatic in this crazy tribe of Cubs fans. My mother initiated me when I was three years old. She was brought into the fold by her father, who actually knew some of the players on the 1908 Championship team. His family owned a grocery store that was frequented by ancient Cubs like Mordecai “3 Finger” Brown, and Johnny Evers of the famous “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” double play combination.

I’m a member of the Cubs tribe, the Jewish tribe and the screw machine tribe, and probably a few more incidental ones like “folks with permanent double vision because of retinal detachment” and “people who love Sam Cooke songs.”

I think people who do not identify with a tribe miss a lot in life. Your tribe grants you an identity. If you are tribeless you are a floater who misses the great joy of connection and sharing that tribe affiliation brings. This does not mean that you cannot reject your tribe and join another, but if you are a frequent sampler of “otherness” you become the non-believer who can never seem to find a home.

I hope you all find peace and acceptance in your tribes. Maybe you will be a brave soul and start your own, a noble though rarely rewarding venture.

Meanwhile, watch out for the Cubs in 2015. This time, we’re building a dynasty.

Question: Which communities or “tribes” are you proud to be a member of? Which tribes do you wish you were a member of?

Lloyd Graff is Owner and Chief Space Filler at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert & Co.

Share this post