Monthly Archives: November 2021

A Quiet Ride to the Office

By Lloyd Graff

Observations made while driving to work this morning. 

The roads are less traveled. This is an observation by Lloyd Graff in an Acura, not Robert Frost. The four-lane highway angling near my home is virtually empty at the stop sign where I enter. It is 10:45 in the morning. It is my new normal since COVID-19, since I shut the doors temporarily in April of 2020. It felt like half the country was on a ventilator then. 

I got used to working from home and realized I did not really add much value by being at the company at 9 a.m. At 76, my body thanked me, too.

***

The parking lot at the local commuter station is maybe 20% filled. Two years ago, you could not find a spot to park if you arrived at 10 a.m. The commuters were primarily women, mostly middle-aged (whatever that means today), and African American, as Chicago’s south suburbs are mostly black.

Where are they now? Working at home? Some of them, I imagine. Others have moved, decided that office work is not their thing anymore, or taken jobs in the suburbs. Much of Downtown Chicago is seedy, particularly at night, and older people are afraid to go there.

Empty Train Station Parking Lot

Not all of the train passengers were women, however. I have a friend who had a successful personal injury legal practice downtown. It faded during the pandemic. He chose not to invest in advertising, so he couldn’t compete against the lawyers with billboards or TV advertising during the Cubs and Sox games. One less car in the parking lot.

The banks and big financial firms have automated and farmed out work. Fewer train riders are needed. Zoom dominates for those still working.

****

I keep driving on my 14-minute trip. Gas stations have fewer patrons. Fewer cars on the road, fewer folks buying gas at $3.52 a gallon for 87 octane. But I do see Amazon Vehicles, UPS, FedEx, and ComEd trucks.

I take a detour to Bergstien’s Deli, which sells homemade chicken matzo ball soup. I’ve ordered it ahead of time.

They bring it to my car. I bought a quart for myself and a quart for Noah. Mine will last two days. He’ll eat his in one sitting. The deli opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. They only sell takeout. This is how they’ve survived during the COVID-19 restaurant purge.

As I continue driving, there are for rent and for sale signs at every retail and commercial building. 

Several fast food franchises are busy. Most are drive-thru. Starbucks in the area does not serve inside anymore. Dunkin Donuts only serves a smattering of indoor patrons. The only independent coffee shop in the area closed recently. Will people ever sit down to schmooze over a cup of coffee again? Certainly not if we have to wear masks when we enter.

****

Getting close to the factory. Near some of Chicago’s Interstates, I-57 and I-80, and brand new enormous monolithic buildings. Seven of them, almost 3 million square feet, have emerged from the earth in the last two years. Amazon occupies two of them. The others appear vacant. Massive concrete rectangles, many of them occupying ground that was supposed to be a discount mall. Big money is buried in these empty temples. Obviously the 2.5% money thinks they will soon have tenants. 

I’ve called the rental agents that represent the cement. They say “deals are pending.” There are no cars yet. 

Who will work there? My friend the lawyer? No way. The commuters who are now on Zoom or taking care of their kids or parents? Maybe a few of them. Will it be robots? Not yet. Meanwhile, that’s a lot of empty space a stone’s throw from the Interstates. 

I turn into my industrial park. Wendy’s has a line. The big Frito-Lay warehouse is bustling. Some vacancies, but the landlords say “deals are pending.” 

My matzo ball soup is still warm.

Question: What changes have you noticed in your neighborhood or on your drive to work?

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That “Thankful to be an American” Thing

By Lloyd Graff

I lingered in the tourist bus while everybody else filed into the structure. Then I walked down the steps and began to deliberately strip off my layers of clothing. Warm coat, sweater, white shirt, under shirt. It was dark out, snow flurrying.

I wanted to shiver before I went into the building. I looked around the fenced-in area and saw the small homes had Christmas lights. Lublin, Poland, was outside of the building. Peaceful. Then I put my shirt back on and walked into Majdanek Concentration Camp to inspect its gas chambers. It was 1999.

***

Every day I take a few seconds to give thanks to God, my grandparents, and I don’t know who, for being born in America. It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday, but for me every day is a day of thanks to be an American.

I do not dwell on the Holocaust everyday, but it has made its imprint on me, and I know that the Nazis did not just exterminate Jews in Majdanek. They pushed Roma, and Poles, and others they weren’t fond of into the gas chambers and ovens, too.

I was born free in America at the end of World War II. My parents were born here. Their parents were not. Somehow they got here on crowded boats, came to Chicago because they knew people or had family who had come before them. Most were young, in their teens or even younger.

A lot of them married cousins. Many were arranged marriages and worked out badly, but divorce was a foreign idea. They had big families, and almost everyone lost a sibling very young.

I had the benefit of coming from survivors. I’ve had it easy. You could be poor in America and dig your way out. Education was available if you were bright or energetic. There was a GI Bill, and of course, it helped if you were white.

But this America that I have known has had all kinds of opportunities for everybody who grabs them.

I am grateful for so many things as I prepare for Thanksgiving. Just being alive, knowing that so many things I’ve endured, like Vietnam or a heart attack, could have killed me or left me despondent.

I’m grateful to have had a 50-year love affair with my wife, remarkable children and grandchildren who like to be with me. 

But that “being an American” thing is sure a big one. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Question: Does America still want the huddled masses? Should we?

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Tornos DECO Swiss Meister, Achim Bauer

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast I spoke to Achim Bauer, one of the most knowledgeable people I know about Tornos DECO CNC Swiss machines. His company, Bauer & Licht Industrietechnik OHG, in Pforzheim, Germany, is one of the only companies in the world that specializes specifically in rebuilding Tornos DECOs. Recently, I had the privilege to pick his brain about the nuances of the powerful sliding headstock machine that’s no longer manufactured yet still has a vast group of loyal users worldwide.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast. Or listen on your phone with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite app.

Main Points

Achim worked at Tornos in Germany from ‘90s until 2011 when he and his partner started their own company, Bauer and Licht. Sometimes Bauer & Licht buys used Tornos DECO machines to rebuild and resell, but Achim says his preferred business model is rebuilding Tornos DECO machines that customers already own. The company offers different options of service to repair or overhaul the machines depending on customers’ needs and budgets. They are capable of taking a machine down to its barebones and creating virtually a new machine, able to produce parts of an extremely high standard. Bauer and Licht’s basic overhaul consists of replacing a machine’s ball screws, slides, coolant pump, cables, and fans. Sometimes the company makes software upgrades and installs accessories such as high frequency spindles or high pressure pumps.

There are four models of Tornos DECOs. DECO10 machines can have as many as 9 axes, and the other three models can feature up to 10 axes. The DECO10 has a maximum 10mm capacity, the DECO13 has a maximum 16mm capacity, the DECO20 has a 20mm capacity but can be expanded to 25.4mm, and the DECO26 has a maximum capacity of 32mm. Tornos DECOs have Fanuc controls, but the controls are entirely different than those on a different brand of Swiss machine such as a Star or Tsugami. On a Tornos DECO the operator cannot input a program directly on the machine’s control. Instead, the operator writes a program using software on a PC, which is then transferred into the machine tool’s control using a usb drive or a good old fashioned floppy disc. 

Tornos started making DECOs in the mid-1990s and stopped producing them in the latter 2000s, replacing them with the EvoDECO. Achim says the EvoDECO is also a good machine and has some nice new features such as quieter spindles, a Fanuc 31i control, and some standard modern safety features. Still, a great deal of Tornos DECO users do not want upgrade to the EvoDECOs because they can cost upwards of $300,000. Also, DECO devotees, some of whom have been using the machines for 25 years, already have the tooling, expertise, and confidence that their current equipment will make parts to the standards they require. For this reason, Achim’s company has a great niche. 

Achim says despite leaving Tornos to start Bauer and Licht, his company still has a good relationship with Tornos. Tornos supplies them with spare parts, and in the past Bauer and Licht has even helped Tornos with a little bit of service for DECO customers. 

Achim has serviced and bought used Tornos DECOs around Europe, in the U.S., and in Asia. He says one of main problems he sees with the machines he encounters is that people do not keep them clean and fail to do maintenance. Usually the biggest offenders are automotive companies who claim they do not have time to stop the machines to clean and maintain them. He says the companies producing watch parts in Switzerland and medical parts in eastern Germany generally have machines in the best condition. Bauer and Licht has the most customers in Bavaria and in the southern areas of Germany.

Achim says that business is currently going well for Bauer and Licht. They are working on as many machines as they can handle. He says in Europe the medical sector and the small connector business are doing well, while the automotive sector is struggling because of supply chain issues with electronic parts.  

Question: Which other machine tools do you prefer the older versions of compared to the current ones?

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Always a Player

By Lloyd Graff

It’s the feeling that enables me to fall asleep. 

The kinesthetic memory of the dimpled leather, the seams spaced across the leather ball, feeling it roll up my fingertips toward the rim. And then the swish–the perfect swish, no rattling iron, 15 feet of perfection. 

It’s my meditation, the meditation of a kid who spent hour after hour developing his shot, my unique defining shot, similar to a million kids’ free throw motions, yet imprinted with my singular DNA. 

Winter, spring, summer, fall, it’s always basketball season when you have it in your blood like I do. I’ve been reminded of the hypnotic attraction of the game while watching Swagger, the series currently playing on Apple TV, co-produced by Kevin Durant, the NBA star.

I was a nice player back in the day. Sweet shot, good size for a white boy, with sloppy hands and slow feet. A high school player who could score, but not much else. 

But how I adored the game. And I still do, even if just to hallucinate and dream about the swishes and the perfect angle off the backboard.

I watch the game on TV. I am into the NBA again because the Chicago Bulls have put together an entertaining team after years of dullness. A general manager who understands how to win in the league, a coach who has the respect of the players, and a group of guys who just love playing the game, not just collecting a big salary and pulling in shoe money, have changed the team.

The NBA has players from all over the world–Senegal, Finland, Poland, Greece, Serbia–but especially from the ghettos of America. Yet they can play together, make real teams that are always changing, and on good nights truly mesh in a beautiful way. 

Like no other professional sports league, the NBA is influenced by the families of its players. Swagger tells a story of a domineering mother who pushes her son to dream and believe he’s going to make it to the top. She demands that he do the extra push-ups. She finds the ideal coach for him, not necessarily the one with the best connections. 

When I watch the Chicago Bulls play, I see their new point guard, Lonzo Ball, whose father dreamed big for him and his two brothers. Lonzo and his brother LaMelo are in the NBA currently, and their brother LiAngelo is in the G League. He has less natural talent than his brothers, but will ultimately make it to the NBA because his father will almost will him there.

I also love to watch the NBA because it defies the stereotypes of Woke America. The League is dominated by black players, yet many of the coaches are white and the favorite for MVP this year is Luka Dončić, a white player from Slovenia playing for Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks. If he doesn’t win, Steph Curry probably will. Steph’s father played in the League and his brother Seth is a solid player for Philly.

When you watch the new Chicago Bulls, you see one player who some nights doesn’t score points, yet has made them into a top team. I think he is a reflection of the hard-working gritty American that makes this country special. He is Alex Caruso from College Station, Texas, who hung around his hometown to go to Texas A&M. 

When Caruso was in Los Angeles Sunday night, his former teammates on the Lakers, including LeBron James, embraced him and the LA fans cheered for him. He did not score that night, but his defense and tenacity led Chicago to victory. Caruso is a “baller.” He has swagger. He plays with passion and joy. 

When I imagine the feel of the basketball rising from my fingertips in bed at night, Alex Caruso is the kind of player I wish I could have been. The game still puts a smile on my face.

Questions: Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?

Who is your favorite basketball player of all time?

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109 Years of a Machine Shop

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we’re telling the life story of F.C. Phillips in Stoughton, Massachusetts, a fourth-generation machining company that lived from 1911 until January of 2020. Our guest is Brian Snow, former co-owner of the company and a grandson of its founder, F.C. Phillips. I spoke to Brian about what enabled his company to last for over a century and what ultimately led it to shut its doors.

In addition to this podcast, Today’s Machining World produced a short documentary (below) about the history of the company, which is being auctioned off next week.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast. Or listen on your phone with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite app.

For much of F.C. Phillips’ existance, a significant portion of its revenue came from the athletic shoe spikes business. For a long time, it was the number one athletic spikes producer in the United States. In the early twentieth century the South Shore region of Massachusetts had a large shoe industry. F.C. Phillips’ first foray into the shoe business was around 1915, making threaded rods that went into shoe trees. A few years later, the company developed a specialty, producing metal spikes on Acme-Gridley screw machines for the bottoms of logging shoes as well as athletic shoes for a number of sports, golf shoes in particular. F.C., the company’s founder, patented a way for the spikes to be assembled, which led to the company not only producing the spikes but also the plates in the soles of the shoes in which the spikes screwed into. Unfortunately, many decades later, the athletic spikes business was devastated when golf course greenskeepers outlawed golf shoes with metal spikes, claiming they were tearing up their courses. Today only the pro golfers get to wear them. Also, when the bulk of shoe manufacturing moved to Asia it further hurt the athletic spikes business. However, up until F.C. Phillips closed in 2020, it was still making metal spikes for track shoes.

In addition to its athletic spikes business, F.C. Phillips had some great contracts over its 109 years. The company made parts for M16 rifles during the Vietnam war and had a very lucrative contract with General Dynamics in the ‘80s and ’90s, making fasteners that secured ceramic plates to the sides of Israeli army tanks. It also made parts for Snap-On and Hewlett Packard.

Brian started working at the company after college in the late ‘60s and retired five years ago as Vice President. I asked him why F.C. Phillips folded after being a successful business for over a century. He says the main contributing factors for its downfall were lack of investment in modern equipment and not pushing hard enough to get new customers. 

It’s easy see an ending like that of F.C. Phillips through a negative lens. A business that made important components for so many people, including thousands of athletes, no longer exists, and many talented people have lost their jobs. But if you listen to the podcast, Brian doesn’t seem sad. He is definitely sentimental about his family’s legacy and the place he went to work for so many years, but he appears to have come to terms with the end of the company. He says he thinks his grandfather, F.C., would have been astounded that the company survived as long as it did. Most companies can’t claim to have lasted over 100 years spanning four generations. 

Brian even says he had a lot of fun preparing for the shop’s auction. He discovered hidden treasures, such as a pristine 100-year-old anvil in the shop’s basement. He also enjoyed helping to make the documentary about the company, which perhaps has given him further closure. I highly recommend everyone check the video out. It’s everything you could want! Acmes, anvils, drone shots and lot of heart.

Question: What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about family businesses?

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My Close Call

By Lloyd Graff

I wrote a blog recently about an NBA referee, Mark Davis, who seems to love making the close calls.

I don’t. 

I am confronted now with one of these annoying close calls, which will have an effect on how I feel, how I act, my decisions, and maybe everyday actions like driving. 

I have a mild seizure disorder, a form of epilepsy which I have been aware of most of my life. Most of my seizures express themselves as a magnification of sound, a feeling of electricity down my spine, and maybe a fogginess in my brain for 10 to 15 minutes. Occasionally, they manifest in an inability to speak clearly or lip smacking, which lasts a few minutes. These symptoms are somewhat visible to others, but I have been aware of them for 50 years, so usually I am able to hide them and then proceed with my life.

Last June, however, I had two major seizures that affected my whole body, of which I have no memory. They were caused by a lack of sodium in my brain. I had a similar one six years earlier in the midst of a colonoscopy prep when I drank too much water and diluted my brain’s sodium. 

If I monitor my sodium, I am unlikely to have another major seizure, but what happened this summer has heightened my fear and awareness of the small ones which may not be related to the major ones. 

My doctors at the University of Chicago put me on a drug called Keppra, which is one of the most commonly used seizure drugs. I have to admit that it has eliminated all of the small seizures over the last six months, except for one in August. 

Unfortunately, Keppra also makes me drowsy about one hour after I take it, and the drowsiness lingers unless eliminated by adrenaline or reduced by caffeine. 

The author at work at Graff-Pinkert

So it is a trade-off. Hardly any seizures versus lethargy much of the day. I can experiment with other drugs, which I may very well do. There are days when I feel like throwing the Keppra in the trash, but then I think about a lifetime of irritating seizures that I have to admit seem to be coming more frequently in recent years. The Keppra has virtually eliminated them, and I am grateful for that. 

I do not love coffee, but I have been experimenting with how often and when I drink it these days. It definitely reduces my fatigue, but the length of my greater bounciness varies. 

Also, when I set myself to a focused task like writing a blog or working on a transaction, my tiredness fades. Listening to an exciting book may accomplish the same thing. So the drowsiness does not overtake me completely except from around 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The doctor tells me to give in and be happy to take a siesta. 

That is my balancing act. Live virtually seizure-free, use coffee as a countermeasure, and be happy taking Keppra or some other drug. Or, I can drop the Keppra to feel less lethargic but accept the annoying small seizures, which seem to be getting more frequent as I get older.

Question: What tough decisions are you grappling with right now?

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Tools Require Skill

By Noah Graff

Last Friday, I visited George Breiwa at his company DynaVap, in Deforest, Wisconsin, right next to my alma mater, University of Wisconsin Madison. I had interviewed George on Swarfcast twice already, and he had invited me to visit his company for a tour several times in the past. It took an opportunity to broker a very interesting machine to finally get me off my butt and take the three hour drive.

I know some people might be wondering what that machine is, but I’m not at liberty to say at the moment. I’ll just say it’s what I’d call a very sexy and expensive screw machine. Some machines, often the ones that Graff-Pinkert sells, I would characterize as “sexy ugly,” but this machine is just damn sexy. 

But I digress. This blog and video are about a different type of machine that is also elegant, innovative, and with a bit of a learning curve, DynaVap’s signature product, the VapCap. I’d define the VapCap as a vape pen used to consume a product that conventionally is smoked. It is unique because it functions with no electrical components, only using an external heat source such as a lighter. VapCaps are constructed of precision machined components, primarily produced on Citizen and Ganesh Swiss machines.

George was a great guide. He took me around the company’s machine shop and also showed me the set where his company shoots its own video content. DynaVap puts out new professionally shot videos online regularly, demonstrating its newest products and teaching customers how to get the most out of them. George never seems to get tired of explaining his products that seem to give him immense purpose.

Two years ago, after interviewing George the first time, he was nice enough to send me my own VapCap. It was beautifully crafted and unique. I tried it out a few times and it did what it was supposed to do, however, I kept running into trouble. Whenever I wanted to reload it, it seemed to take forever for the cap to cool off enough to touch it, and I constantly burned myself. I decided to take advantage of my visit and get my issue addressed. 

As we toured the shop, I asked George why he makes a product that isn’t easier to use. He told me he likens using the VapCap to a skill such as riding a bike. He brought up that most great tools require the user to learn a skill and practice. He’s proud that the VapCap shares that characteristic because it works well once you get the hang of it.

After my tour, George enthusiastically gave me a private tutorial on using his product, some of which I have included in the video accompanying this blog.

Question: What’s your favorite tool?

 

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American Failure

By Lloyd Graff

It is hard to run an airline, much less make any money doing it. On the other hand, it is hard to be as inept as American Airlines and still manage to be in business. 

My wife Risa and I had a firsthand view of American’s chaos over these past couple of days, trying to get home from a family get-together in Charlotte, North Carolina. We had flown down from Chicago on Thursday, our first visit in two years because of COVID-19. That trip went smoothly despite my vision and hearing issues, which make every plane trip a challenge. We employed a professional driver, Khalid Finley, who we have used many times for airport and medical adventures. It eliminates the parking expenses and other woes that make tough trips even more difficult. It also meant that a mishap that changed our itinerary from O’Hare to Midway would not mean an orphaned vehicle parked at O’Hare.

The not-unexpected cancellations occurred Sunday morning, about five hours before our plane home was scheduled to leave Charlotte. With no warning, we received an email announcing our flight was canceled. No reschedule. No explanation except “weather problems.” The airline did not say it was canceling more than 1,000 flights all over the country because of a few thunderstorms over Dallas on Saturday night.

One of the many aggravating things about American Airlines is that they are dreadfully understaffed and morale is low, which makes it hard for them to hire. They are also struggling with vaccination mandates, which enough employees rejected to make what has been long-term understaffing into a gigantic mess waiting to happen. Thunderstorms over American’s primary hub, Dallas, were the straw that broke the camel’s back, and management immediately went into retreat and cover-up mode.

American has taken in billions of dollars in taxpayer money in the last two years to stay afloat. All of the major airlines have taken money, but only American, one of the largest, seems so precarious.

My wife Risa and I didn’t care about American’s miseries.  We just wanted to get home as close to when we planned to as possible, with little trauma.

Forget about reaching a person at American by phone. That is a big part of their chaos. Everything is on a computer. We got the kind of computerized solutions you would expect. Fly to Washington, switch your plane which might not arrive, and hope to arrive in Chicago by midnight on Monday. Or fly to Kansas City and wait for a connection that might arrive Tuesday if you are lucky.

I suggested we try Southwest Airlines, which still has the great virtue of reachable, friendly, knowledgeable human beings working for them who are not in India or the Philippines. 

Southwest has reduced its schedule to Charlotte, which is why we ended up on American in the first place, but they still have a robust schedule out of Raleigh-Durham Airport. They had two seats left on Monday morning at 6:45 a.m., nonstop to Chicago. We took them, not knowing how we’d get to Raleigh, but knowing we would figure it out.

We considered renting a car but Amtrak had a 3-hour express train from Charlotte to Raleigh, leaving at 3 p.m. for $30 a person, senior fare special, and we thought that was the ticket. An Uber to a reasonable and nice Hilton Garden Hotel within 3 minutes from the airport made it ideal. 

Lloyd Graff takes an Amtrak train to Raleigh

All went smoothly. We arrived in Chicago at 8:00 a.m., and Khalid adjusted his schedule to pick us up at Midway. 

One glitch gives a good picture of the difference between American and Southwest. Risa’s brother used the computer to book our Southwest flight, and he booked Risa’s reservation under her maiden name, Levine. Risa changed it by calling Southwest Airlines, waiting a little while, during which we finished packing, and then explained the mistake to a pleasant, efficient woman who changed the reservation. 

The immense value of a human being, well-trained and used to solving problems, should never be forgotten.

Question: Do you have a travel horror story?

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