Category Archives: Today’s Machining World

The Greenland Story

By Lloyd Graff

What do you do when you go for a brief vacation to the Bay Area to visit family?

Naturally, you study up on the history of Greenland.

Greenland is getting some interest these days.  Donald Trump, still a real estate developer at heart, recently tossed out the idea that the United States should buy it from Denmark.  Of course, the Danes put a kibosh on the deal, which may mean negotiations have begun.

A recent scholarly article published by Northwestern University geologists has proven that Erik the Red, the Viking who fled Iceland after a murder and conviction in 985, colonized a much more temperate Greenland than was previously thought.  It was in the 50° range many months of the year, making it a good place to raise animals, fish, and harvest ivory.  About 350 to 400 years later a “little ice age” seemed to discourage many Greenlanders, and they left.

In the last few years, old Norse settlements have been discovered as the climate appears to be becoming more temperate, and real estate developer types are finding renewed interest.

Why this is so interesting today and so disturbing to me in the heart of Silicon Valley, with one of the most benign climates in the world?

It seems like so many folks here are paranoid about “the existential threat of climate change.”  Living in the Midwest, climate change is generally a footnote to most political and economic discussions.  Even most of the Democratic politicians running for the Presidency in 2020 do not make it a major emphasis, probably because their polling data indicates it does not move the needle in the crucial early primary states.

But in California, among the intelligentsia of Silicon Valley and malleable young people who hear the voice of doom about the planet burning up in their lifetime which is expounded almost every day in school and their media, it is a real fear. They do not know that Greenland was mild 1,000 years ago, then got very cold, and now is getting more tolerable again.  They don’t know what they don’t know.

I do believe the climate on Earth is getting slightly warmer now, but it does not worry me.  People are very smart, and a capitalist economy will adapt very quickly and make it into a net positive.

What does worry me is that kids are being indoctrinated in school and by Facebook and TV on the huge danger they face, and, ultimately, bad public policy decisions will be made that seriously undermine our prosperity.

If one bought into conspiracy theories, the manipulative tentacles of Vladimir Putin and Russia could be seen all over “the existential threat of climate change.”

Putin did not invent “climate change,” but long ago he came to the conclusion that Russia’s economy was backward and almost totally dependent on oil and gas for hard currency.  Nobody wants a Russian dishwasher or car or machine tool.  If you are Putin, and his new buddies the Saudis, you desperately want American oil fracking to end and the 6 million barrels a day it produces to go away.  If he can shrewdly manipulate American public opinion to embrace the climate change disaster theory and boost the “kill dirty fracking” line he wins the game, and we have $80-$100 per barrel oil again.

Theories about the weather go hot and cold.  Check out the Greenland story.

Question: Do you believe climate change is mainly caused by people?

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Swarfcast Ep. 54 – E.J. Daigle on Technical Education That Works

By Noah Graff

In today’s podcast we discuss what a person can get for $20,000 per year at a highly regarded technical college. Our guest is E.J. Daigle, Dean of Robotics and Manufacturing at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also lead faculty member of the school’s top ranked robotic snow plow team. Dunwoody College offers associate and bachelor degrees in a variety of fields, such as construction sciences, engineering, robotics, architecture, and machining.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast.

E.J. explicitly talks about how Dunwoody emphasizes hands-on learning. He says that Dunwoody students in the machining department receive 15 hours of lab time per week working on equipment.Main Points of the Interview

(2:55) E.J. gives the history of Dunwoody College, which was started in 1914 in Minnesota by William Hood Dunwoody, an entrepreneur who made his fortune as a silent partner in the Washburn Crosby company, which later became General Mills.

(5:45) E.J. describes Dunwoody as a polytechnic college that offers certificates, as well as associates and bachelors degrees. He says that the school believes in a “learn by doing approach,” and that it is not uncommon for Dunwoody students to be in lab (working on equipment) 8 to 15 hours per week.

(7:53) E.J. tells his personal story of going into the U.S. Navy out of high school, where he worked on nuclear submarines for 10 years. Before his first submarine was commissioned, E.J. worked in the shipyards alongside the people constructing the vessel, which he says gave him a good view into a variety of manufacturing processes.

(9:50) E.J. draws parallels between the hands-on learning style he experienced in the Navy to that at Dunwoody College.

(13:50) E.J. talks about how Dunwoody approaches the diverse previous academic backgrounds of its students, particularly in math.

(16:05) E.J. talks about the success of a significant portion of older students at Dunwoody who are former laid off autoworkers

(16:55) E.J. says Dunwoody graduates around 20 students a year from its Machine Tool Program and the school generally receives 300 requests to hire them.

(20:10) E.J. cites studies which say in the next 10 years the manufacturing industry will be 2 million workers short.

(23:00) E.J. says that a 2-year associate degree costs $40,000 in tuition. He says that last year’s Machine Tool class had a 100 percent job placement. He also says it is not uncommon for a third of the students in the Machine Tool Program to quit after only one year because they find jobs they like before graduating.

(27:40) E.J. says that Dunwoody encourages its associate degree graduates to continue their education with the school’s programs for entrepreneurship, management, or engineering. Often students work and go to school part-time to further their education.

(32:00) E.J. says that too many kids pick colleges based on the wrong criteria, rather than choosing based on what they are interested in doing after graduation.

(35:35) E.J. talks enthusiastically about his experience as the lead faculty member of Dunwoody’s autonomous robotic snow plow team, which is ranked number one in the world.

(39:00) E.J. discusses some of the extraordinary projects that Dunwoody graduates have worked on, such as making components for the Mars Rover, and components that went into the drills that saved the Chilean miners.

Question: Is higher education worth the money?

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Baseball Hug

By Lloyd Graff

By the end of the phone conversation, we were both in tears. My daughter, Sarah, and I were lamenting the collapse of the Chicago Cubs again this year, right after they had blown their fifth game in a row in the last inning. It wasn’t the pain of the loss that caused the tears 2,000 miles apart during our cell phone hug. It was the raw emotion of the moment shared that epitomized thousands of moments of exultation and despair over a team that we both love.

This is the time of year Sarah and I talk sermons and baseball. She is a rabbi in the Bay Area, and her congregants know that somehow she will make a Cubs reference in her most listened to sermon of the year on Yom Kippur. For me, it is a treasured opportunity to reconnect with my first-born child, who I love deeply and respect so much.

How many of those ineffable shared moments do you get in a lifetime, when you both realize that there is just a finite number of those precious times left and you’d better grab and squeeze it like it’s a long fly ball that you have to leap for at the ivy in Wrigley Field and hold on to as you hit the bricks?

Sarah doesn’t know every batting average or the meaning of all of Javy Baez’s tattoos, or the kinds of cancers Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo beat early in their Major League careers, like I do. But she has the love, the passion, and the hurting of a true fan.

Sarah’s husband, Scott, who I often text with during games, shares the whole Cubs thing with me, too. When Scott got back home last Sunday after attending a high school reunion in the suburbs of Chicago over the weekend, one of the first things he did was call me to commiserate over the implosion of our beloved Cubs to the hated Cardinals.

I love Scott as a person, as a husband for Sarah, and a wonderful father,  but as lifelong bleeding Cubbie blue fans, we have something very special that few in-laws have—that sharing of moments, the jumping for joy feeling that makes up for those terrible emotions of watching a walk-off homer for the opposition in the ninth inning.

When I read the morning sports page, I often wonder why I spend so much time on the Cubs. Why do I still feel like Ernie Banks is my first cousin? Why do I still think of the Chicago Cubs when I bring up the memory of my mother, Thais Graff?

It’s the moments. It’s the moments that turn memory into feeling tears. You don’t know when they will come, but when you experience them, picture them, place them in the frame of your life, they bring a special joy that punctuates the everyday hurly burly.

This season has been a disappointment for me and the Cubs. It has been a long, often sad journey, but it has given me so many marvelous moments to share with Sarah and Scott and my wife, Risa, who has become a fan in her 60s, and Noah, and my granddaughters.

When I experience one of those shared moments, when I feel welling tears of shared emotion that don’t require any words, I feel so grateful to have my Cubs.

Question: Do you bond with your family over sports?

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PTSD 11 Years Later

By Lloyd Graff

Of all the weeks in the year this is the one I dread the most.

I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which was triggered by my almost catastrophic heart attack that occurred 11 years ago this week.  It is also the week that my mother died suddenly in 1993.

I think about the heart attack every day of my life, wondering how I survived, why I survived, and when the final shoe might drop.  I don’t try to not think about it, because that only causes me to think about it even more.

The strange thing is that it wasn’t all that terrible for me when it happened, because most of the time I was drugged. I had collateral heart circulation developed over 25 years of dedicated running, so even though my most important heart artery was 99% blocked I could still function, if only in a painful and sickly way.  I had trouble breathing and thought I had pneumonia.  My wife, Risa, and I drove 55 minutes August 29, 2008, to see a friend who was an infectious disease doctor, and I walked into his office at the hospital while Risa parked.  He was treating a kid while I waited.  I remember him checking me out in the waiting area, putting a stethoscope on my chest, and saying Lloyd, I’m wheeling you to the emergency room myself.  I remember somebody yelling, “Can I cut his underwear off?” and then nothing.

Lloyd on a flatbed truck 11 years later

Then the nightmare really started for Risa and my children and many, many people who rushed to the St. Francis Hospital in Evanston to be with her.

Somehow by good fortune that morning a heart surgeon Dr. Muhammed Akbar was available to insert a stent into my blocked artery, known as the “widowmaker.”  When asked after the emergency surgery how he did it he simply pointed skyward, Risa recalls.  Without the longshot stent insertion I had virtually no chance of survival.  Bypass surgery at that point was almost certain to fail.  The hope was that I would gain strength over the Labor Day weekend, and they would do a quadruple bypass on Tuesday.

Risa and my children and sister slept in the waiting room for those four nights.  I mostly slept and got stronger.  I was unaware of what was happening.  I wasn’t worried, as best I can remember.  They suffered and waited but also had wonderful family togetherness moments.

I strengthened over the long weekend.  I was hooked into tubes and had a mask that prohibited me from speaking.

My family regaled me with songs for 45 minutes before the surgery.  I am sure it helped them and me, but I can’t remember the singing.  The only thing I think I can remember is that the Cubs were on the radio, and I heard the score was 9-6 just before I went into surgery, and they cracked my chest open.

The bypass surgery worked amazingly well.  Afterwards, the surgeon said I should be good for 20 years.  I’ve held on to that comment desperately for the past 11 years.

Now it’s 4017 days later, and I’m feeling pretty darn good.  But the event haunts me – every day.  It affects every big decision.  I think about it every time I plan a vacation or blow out birthday candles.  The memory still lingers of being wheeled into emergency surgery and not exactly being terrified, just being in shock and amazement and almost amused about being asked whether I cared if they cut my underwear off.

Will I ever forget that day, those crazy weird moments?  No, unless I lose my memory.

My PTSD is not horrible.  I live my life, often with great joy.  I am not depressed, most of the time.  But I am stuck with that memory tattoo of August 29, 2008.  The day I probably should have died, but didn’t.

Question: Do you have post-traumatic stress disorder?

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At the Track Every Day

By Lloyd Graff

Trading in used machinery is sophisticated gambling. Some people find it strange that I am utterly indifferent about sports gambling.  It has no allure for me. I once lost $25 playing 21 at a casino in Vegas and felt stupid – not for losing, but just for walking into the smoke-filled room.  Yeah, it was a long time ago.

And now, after such a long, long time in the screw machine trading and refurbishing business, we have the exhilarating and scary opportunity to reinvent a new business by finding a new cohort of machines to gamble on.  I’m finding it exciting, even enthralling at times, and pretty damn scary, too.

A very smart guy once told me that “if you don’t feel ‘it’ in the pit of your stomach, you aren’t bidding enough to get a deal.”  He was right, but that doesn’t mean fear guarantees your success. It only guarantees doubt and restless sleep.

In our machinery business, we are confronted with the wrenching reality that our traditional customers are not very interested in buying what we’ve always sold.  It’s a bit like a car dealer specializing in sedans and convertibles in a pickup truck and SUV world. Not much action. The obvious path is to switch to pickups and SUVs, but the downside is that almost everybody else has done the same thing.  For a used machinery dealer, the analog is to jump into the used Haas lathe and vertical machining center market. But that is awfully boring and terribly competitive. There is an auction every Tuesday and Thursday with Haases in it. The only sleepers are in sofa beds.

Our strategy has been to go to Outer Mongolia searching for bargains and hauling them back to civilization.  My son Noah likes to travel to Outer and Inner Mongolia so he wants to try this approach.

I also want to search for the guavas and jackfruit in the produce department, the exotics that only the people with weird tastes dare to inhabit?  This is a long jaunt from the Acmes and New Britains of my youth that we once sold by the truckload.

Our real niche seems to be in the European descendants of the Acmes and New Britains, the CNC multi-spindles like Index and Schutte that are so darn complicated and daunting that they confuse even people who have grown up with their simpler, now often discarded, cousins.

When you place bets on machinery you don’t know like family, you are going to lose some of the time.  Try to tell your banker, “Well, I bought that washer, that robot, that Hydromat thing, to experiment.”  They may get the intellectual gambit, but they get rather annoyed about losses. They think you are always supposed to win in business.  This is when resilience and being part of a team that understands the value of defeat as an educational tool, one that realizes that business is a continuum, are so vital.  To succeed in the long game of business you have to build in defeat cushions. If you are going to gamble you are going to lose. If losing is “unacceptable,” which seems to be the position of football coaches like Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, you are going to end up desperately needing a shrink or a sabbatical.

I hate losing or being wrong, but I also love the action of being in business and trying really hard to win every day, knowing that setbacks are inevitable, and dealing with change is maddening.  

I think about the option of leaving the game.  Noah often asks me, “Dad, was it always this hard?”

Honestly, I can’t even remember, Noah.  Let’s just get it on.

Question: Do you view business as gambling?

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Better With Age?

By Lloyd Graff

I watched one of the greatest tennis matches ever played on Sunday.  I suppose you are thinking, who cares about tennis on the TMW site, but give me a chance on this.

Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time with 20 Grand Slam titles, dueled Novak Djokovic, perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time with 15 Grand Slam titles (at the time).  It was Wimbledon, in London, England, the biggest tournament of the year, perfect weather, playing on a grass court.  Both players had their parents attending.  Federer’s wife and their four kids were in the family box seats, and Djokovic’s parents were with his son.

It had all the ingredients of a classic.  These guys have played each other almost fifty times.  They respect each other, but they don’t really like each other.  They are lions in the tennis jungle.  The biggest of rivals, these matches are what they live for.  They are wars.  The winners have the most endurance, focus, and luck.

Sunday they played 5 sets and were tied 12 games each in the 5th when a newly installed tiebreaker rule went into effect.  Federer and Djokovic are old men as singles tennis players go.  They are 70 years old between the two men.  Federer has been playing major tournaments for 20 years, Djokovic 15 years.

The point is that age is overrated today.  In business, the arts, politics, sports, talent is what counts.  If you can do it, you do it.  If you can’t, get out, but don’t let “them” tell you when you are finished.

The crowd Sunday was almost entirely for “Rah Jah, Rah Jah,” as they indicated by chanting between many of the points.  Novak said after the match that he attempted to hear the crowd chants as “No Vak, No Vak.”  He said it worked most of the time.  Djokovic is used to being the hated favorite and has learned how to use it for himself rather than an excuse to lose.  There is a lesson for us all in his toughmindedness in the biggest matches with everybody against him.  He would glance at his family box to see his parents, sometimes holding his young son, cheering avidly for him.

These men are “all in” regarding training, fitness, nutrition, and the mental game.  They know their bodies.   Between matches they use intravenous hyperalimentation to get the extra nutrients to recover from the previous match and be in top shape for the next one.  Sunday, after five hours of the most grueling exertion, they were both hitting 120 mph serves on the lines, playing long rallies, and going to the net and racing back for lobs.  Their concentration was immaculate—and astounding.

A match like Federer-Djokovic is an inspiration.  It says to me that just because other folks are retiring or cutting back it does not mean I have to.  Just because I had a heart attack 11 years ago it doesn’t mean I can’t be active now, at 74.  It also tells me that if I am serious about business or fitness I have to be committed to it.

Will Roger and Novak eventually be supplanted by great new players?  Yes, but nobody appears to be ready to beat them now.

They aren’t going to make it easy, either.

Question: Have you gotten better with age?

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Swarfcast Ep. 20 – Scott Roy on Machines that will Think Like Humans

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

In today’s podcast we interviewed Scott Roy, a Senior Staff Engineer at Google who specializes in artificial intelligence.  He also happens to be my brother-in-law (Lloyd’s son-in-law).  One of Scott’s most recent projects at Google is to improve the way machines communicate with people in diverse human languages—last week he was working on communicating in Bengali.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Scott Roy.

Scott believes that one day machines may have the sophistication and human-like qualities of Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He says there is a good chance machines will be able to feel emotions like love or the joy of watching baseball, and people will be able to teach them ethics.  Although he recognizes the risks of possible harm to humans by super intelligent machines, his work is motivated by his vision of a relationship in which machines enable people to thrive.

Question: Are you more excited or afraid of super intelligent machines?

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Swarfcast Ep. 4 – Our Family Treasure Hunting Business

By Noah Graff

Listen to the podcast with the player below.

In today’s podcast Lloyd Graff and his son Noah delve into their family used machine tool biz… er treasure hunting business. They discuss how Noah came to work at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert, what it’s like working together and basic alchemy.

Question: Would you like being in business with a family member?

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Machinery Marriage

I often ask clients of our machine tool business where they make the most money in their businesses. They usually have an answer immediately, and it isn’t in the place where they are investing fresh money.

I’m frequently talking to folks who run multi-spindle automatic screw machines, usually cam-operated, in tandem with a host of other equipment. Many people regard these machines as antiques from the antediluvian epoch of manufacturing. These are machines that some folks say won World War II. For the uninitiated, that was the war in which we fought the Germans and Japanese, while the Russians were our allies. The world does have the ability to change.

The ironic answer I often get is that the multi-spindles make the most money, and the return on investment is off the charts because they were written off eons ago.

But the secret sauce is the knowledge of where they fit in the picture. Banging out a half million dumb parts on old Acmes or New Britains is a losing game. Increasingly, sharp manufacturers in Shanghai or Bangalore will make you bang your brains out. Subsidized steel in China and dirt priced brass in India make the simple threaded widget yesterday’s game. But, combining the raw machining strength of 6- or 8-spindle multis with the

finesse of twin-turret, twin-spindle CNC turning centers can turn 20 cent blanks into $2 medical or aircraft pieces. Running single bars through an Okuma or Nakamura will make you a bit player in a crowded cast, but combining those machines with the muscular multis that still can pull their not-so-insignificant weight, makes a potent combination that Shanghai and Bangalore can’t beat.

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President Trump’s tariffs are an annoyance which could grow into a blister if they do not bring any fundamental shifts from the Chinese. American manufacturers, particularly steel users, are today’s sacrificial lambs as the Administration vaguely pushes for China to stop stealing intellectual property. The naïveté of somehow expecting Beijing to allow one of its biggest employers, the inefficient State-run steel industry, to suddenly erode because of the tingling jab of American tariffs is quite surprising. I fret that the strong U.S. economy has made an overconfident Trump start a fight without a clear endgame.

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My son Noah is getting married next month and already receiving some gifts. It brought to mind a few memorable gifts my wife Risa and I received for our wedding that have lasted over the decades we have been together.

We still use our copper bottomed Revere Ware skillets and sauce pans almost every day. Amazingly, 48 years later, they are better than when we got them from Shirley Silverstein as a gift, because they have been seasoned. We seldom shine the copper bottoms, however.

We still have aluminum baking pans, perfect for brownies and cakes, which have remained as wonderful as they were when we received them more than four decades ago. Then there is the cookie recipe book that Risa refers to often and the old Better Homes and Gardens recipe book that never seems to age.

The ideal present does not have to last for 40 or 50 years. Luggage can be used hard for 5 or 10 years and happily discarded, and a sweater that you wear often has a finite life. My wife and I have our own good china, but she usually uses her mother’s china for Sabbath meals and special occasions.

We have several weddings coming up besides Noah’s. The Amazon gift certificate is an appealing surrogate for the special wedding gift that will be remembered fondly 50 years from today. Gifts also go out of vogue. Silver serving bowls seem like such an anachronism today. Who has the space for them to sit idly on shelves?

With wedding season at its peak, I am curious to know who has gifts that have withstood the test of time. Who has a great idea for a gift that will keep on giving or impart a memory which will last forever?

Question: Is running multi-spindles a losing game?

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A Real Piece of Work

Lloyd Graff

Chicago Public Schools teachers with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

Chicago Public Schools are laying off 462 teachers, because the budget is a hopeless mess and the Teachers Union is much more interested in protecting the pensions of incumbent and retired teachers than retaining young untenured teachers. Meanwhile, Charlotte, North Carolina, is desperate for 200 teachers to start the school year, and the suburbs of San Francisco are bending their certification standards to fill their teacher needs.

But I doubt many of the Chicago layoffs will quickly pack their bags for Charlotte or the Bay Area. It’s just too hard for most people to make those kinds of quick shifts.

It’s a different story in the shale oil fields of North Dakota, where so many folks have been living in trailers because they couldn’t build homes fast enough last year in the Williston Basin. But few of those folks would pick up their lives to get teaching jobs in San Francisco.

The job market is not really fluid and borderless. The national unemployment rate is supposedly 5.3%, but I think the number doesn’t make sense. There should be significant wage pressure at 5.3%, but the government says there is little.

There are very few strikes these days. The push to raise the minimum wage is politically and ideologically driven without a widespread national clamor. People are still stitching together part-time jobs and the demand for independent contractors rather than full time staff seems to be here to stay despite that bright 5.3% number.

The U.S. workforce participation levels are extremely low by historical standards, 62.6%. The last time we were at that level was 1977 and Star Wars, was the flick of the day. In 1977, 30 million people worked in government and services. Today, 80 million plus are in those fields. In 1977, 19 million people worked in manufacturing. Today, it’s 12 million. Women have jumped into the workforce and men have bailed out. Eight of 10 men were working in 1977, today it’s seven.

One thing has baffled me for years in the machining field. Why does almost everybody tell me how difficult it is to hire people to run machines, when I know there are plenty of able people lurking in jobs that are not their cup of tea or are at firms that are closing or in trouble?

Several months ago we were looking for a screw machine rebuilder with setup experience for Graff-Pinkert. Noah Graff made a study of viable advertising methods and we chose to do a campaign with Career Builder. To my surprise, we found many interesting candidates, some from Chicago and others willing to move. We were offering a liberal wage and health insurance package, but I would not call it a wage disrupter.

What it indicated to me was that many potential hirers are too passive and use pedestrian methods to reach out for employees. There are people out there looking to better themselves.

The Charlotte school system should be calling Chicago for the emails and phone numbers of the teachers who are getting pink slipped and send recruiters to Chicago on the next plane.

But the best teachers may not even be teaching today. My three granddaughters were fortunate enough to be taught in their pre-school by a former marketing person at Bank of America. After he had been downsized out of his job at Bank of America he came to the school to work as a maintenance man, but when the opportunity arose he morphed into a superb teacher of young children.

My belief is that most young people do not have enough life experience to know what kind of work will be fulfilling and financially rewarding for them to make a career choice at an early age. I think one reason for the declining work participation rate, especially for men, is that they feel like they have wasted their work lives in boring work and would rather drop out than take another dead end job. Also, government welfare programs and disability options encourage people to stay out of the workforce. A former employee of ours who says he would like to work part time for us now is paranoid about losing his disability status, so he languishes on his couch as his viable work options vanish.

The U.S. labor market is very hard to make sense out of. I think that if the Federal Reserve decides to raise interest rates in September because the economists think we are near full employment, they will be making a mistake. The labor market is a lot looser and inefficient than that 5.3% unemployment number represents at first glance.

Question: Do unions still work for the working person?

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