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.


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.


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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18 thoughts on “Machinery Marriage

  1. Norman

    It is not only multi spindle lathes but also 2 and 4 spindle verticals that can have a similar impact

  2. John Bressoud

    After 40 years of marriage, my wife and I are still using the stainless table ware and kitchen knife set we received. It shows how quality steel will last a life time. The silver table ware will last even longer, but I don’t remember the last time we set the table with china, crystal and silver. With 9 grandchildren it seems like a poor choice.

  3. Robert Ducanis

    I think younger people these days aren’t too enamored with the traditional china, crystal, and silver place settings that used to be so prevalent as wedding gifts in years gone by. I still like a beautiful table set for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays but the expense of such sparsely used items is not practical for many young couples getting established.

    That being said, a great gift for any home is a set of stainless tri-ply cookware made by Tramontina (Italy to Brazil to China…go figure). It is sold online by Walmart. An 8-piece set costs about 135$ delivered to your house. This stuff is unbelievable for the price and reviews are outstanding as professional chefs have compared it to high end AlClad cookware. I priced one small sauce pan with lid by AlClad at Bloomingdales and it was priced at $150. If checking out Tramontina tri-ply online at Walmart, be sure to look at the set with the solid stainless lids. Stay away from the glass tops. We have 2 sets at home and have added some individual pieces such as larger stock pot.

    My 2-cents worth regarding cam operated multi-spindles……Great machines if you have the set-up personnel and operators to go along with a smathering of CNC machines to give you a good mix of capabilities…..hog material with the multis and finish coarse threads, close tolerances, and unusual characteristics on CNC chuckers and machining centers.

    1. Rick Rankin

      Not all Tramontina is manufactured offshore. Our company built a coating system for Tramontina to put the ceramic coating on cookware right in our backyard of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

  4. Kim

    I love the ‘sacrificial lamb’ comment. It seems that about 80% of the shops around our area have slowed down dramatically and I think the tariffs are definitely a part of it.

    On the wedding gift item, I too have an old Betty Crocker cookbook that I received as a shower gift (although I really must admit that I haven’t used it for awhile as we generally cook gluten free & paleo). I also still have my little hand mixer. My daughter is getting married soon as well and I have been struggling with this issue as well. They are in their 30’s, living on their own, and as such don’t need the starter gifts that were traditionally given.

  5. Mike

    The Betty Crocker, Better Homes & Gardens and Gold Medal cookbooks have served us well for 40+ years. Also our Club Aluminium cookware and stoneware dishes are used daily and still going strong.

  6. Tom Hogge

    In Our area there are no slow down that I am aware of due to Tariffs.
    Most of our customers had always preferred or out right demanded U.S.
    raw materials. I would love to employ experienced Machinist or Operators from an area that has slowed.
    South Carolina not a bad place to work or live.

    And To Lloyds assessment of operating Screwmachine`s complimented by highly productive C.N.C. It has worked for me for many years now.
    And am thankful I took that approach years ago or probably wouldn’t still be in business.

  7. Lloyd Graff

    Noah and Stephanie got an unusual but very cool wedding gift of 4 live theatre tickets from Jerry Levine, a close family friend. They invited Jerry and his partner Una to come with them to the play. A wonderful win-win present, no matter how good the play is.

  8. Grimstod

    I have over the years thrown out about half our wedding gifts. They were poor choices. Some though were good ones and they have lasted. Really I think the best thing I could have ever done was get rid of the whole wedding (eloped instead) and take the 30k and put it into a house.

  9. Randy

    The one gift I remember from my marriage was from a finance guy back when Prime was 21% and I was paying 7% on top. My wife and I were headed to Hawaii for the first time and he told me of a restaurant to take her on the island and told me to bring him back the bill. I’ll never forget that and I have done it many times to employees and friends who have been married sense. But in my case I tell them to “go make a memory” something they could not afford but wished they could do. Lots of great feed back and thank yous all around.

  10. Miles

    Your comments about integrated Cam multi’s with today’s CNC technology is spot on.
    Two wedding gifts come to mind- the first is both sets of Pyrex mixing bowls we were given in 1975. We bake a lot and everything goes through these bowls. The other gift was a list, in my mother’s hand writing, of all of the family birthdays and anniversaries by month, so that we could keep track and not embarrass ourselves by missing someone’s special day.

  11. Seth Emerson

    Two weddinggifts – That I can remember. A copper bowl – Now used exclusively for Halloween Candy handouts, and a oak cutting board. Used constantly since 1973. The center of the cutting board eventually wore down enough that a straight knife would not cut through veggies in the middle. I removed the feet and had the cutting face planed down flat. A little sanding, re-installed the feet, and back into service. 45 years and cutting green beans from the garden on it tonight.

  12. Lloyd Graff

    These wedding gift stories are precious. Thanks so much for sharing them. These gifts are like clay. They are nothing til shaped and used or admired, then they become more than things.
    So many mention stuff for the kitchen because we spend so much of our time there and have our meaningful conversations there.
    I love blogs like this that connect people around feelings and joy.

  13. Joe

    We have a fairly expensive line of bushings on which the brain trust tried a hard turn CNC process. The cycles were so long that we’ve now evolved to a soft turn on our two Warner & Swasey 5 spindle machines, then skim cut post heat treat to finish out. I’ve heard the same thing in terms of most profitable work centers being the cam & gear screws. Having worked with several makes over the years, it seems to me the Warner & Swasey multi spindles are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the old cam & gear era- very underrated. In today’s micro order quantity world, they set up so much faster than an Acme.

  14. allen

    China’s not quite the muscular giant a lot of people, especially people who have to compete directly with China, think.

    First, it’s still run by Communists. Despite all the evidence that socialism’s an unerring heat-seeking missile pointed toward poverty the Communist leadership still tries to manipulate markets to what they hope is their advantage. Example the “corner” they tried to engineer on rare earths.

    Initially they were in a pretty good spot having driven all their competitors out of the market. But as soon as they started jacking up prices they created the incentive re-open old mines capable of producing rare earths and touched off prospecting that’s found reserves of rare earths that means China’s corner on the market’s over forever.

    This debacle proves the Chinese leadership’s no smarter than the Hunt brothers or the other way round.

    But the Chinese leadership’s got bigger problems than getting its nose bloodied arranging for their rare earths corner. The Chinese people have made it pretty clear that there won’t be trouble as long as next year looks like it’s going to be better than this year and America’s a large part of whether China’s prosperity will continue.

    So color me naive but in terms of political power China’s state-run steel industry has to be measured not against the “tingling jab of American tariffs” but against the possibility of economic stagnation for China. We can afford economic stagnation because America’s governed by Americans and if we don’t like the way things are being handled we can change out the people doing the handling. China’s got no such safety valve.

    If you want something to worry about worry about China collapsing into civil war.

  15. Susan Minerbi

    Hi Lloyd,

    I read your article about the wedding gifts and thought that I’d share a bit about a memorable, lasting wedding gift we received. It was from an old Italian friend of my father-in-law whom I had never met. It is an exquisitely carved sterling silver box with a lovely carnelian stone set into the top. The inside is coated with a gold colored substance. The box serves no practical purpose, and I am a very practical person. Yet, this object is so beautiful and distinctive that I enjoy looking at it often, and leave it out in a central place in my living room. Italians are sentimental people, and this piece evokes a warm feeling within me when I look at it.

  16. Lloyd Graff

    Allen, as always your comment is profound. I think the Communist leaders of China live in mortal fear of dissent ultimately turning into revolution. That is how China has developed into the current prosperous hybrid of authoritarian capitalism. Jack Ma is the epitome of a Capitalist genius who can deal deftly with the devil of Communism.
    As clumsy as Trump’s tariff gambit is, it has shaken up Xi and the heirarchy like nothing we have done in my memory with China. From a substantive standpoint the steel tariff is a tingling jab, but the prospect of shrinking prosperity in Mainland China does appear to be surprising and terrifying to the leadership. They had a playbook of tit for tat tariffs but they probably thought they would never have to resort to it.
    My issue with the Trump tariffs is that the Donald will let his ego get in the way and sacrifice American manufacturing without getting any movement from the Chinesewho are probably flustered by Trump’s unpredictability.
    Do you Trump and his people have any logical endgame on the tariff gambit? I doubt it. Mnuchin and Ross are smart guys, but I doubt that they have any idea what play the Donald will try next.

    1. allen

      Cripes, now you made me blush.

      To me the endgame’s pretty obvious; Chinese cleverness is predicated on American diffidence.

      When we didn’t respond to China’s taking an inch it became clear that taking inches was acceptable. So they did.

      Obama wasn’t up for that sort of thing and Dubya was to too little an extent to put the Chinese much off their game. Dubya did manage to get the Chinese to reduce their degree of currency manipulation but wasn’t willing to go for a full court press across a range of issues – non-tariff barriers, intellectual property theft, market manipulation, equity requirements, etc.

      And China is running through its greatest resource – poverty.

      Several decades under Communism ensured there would be a lot of people for whom a full belly today was all they hoped for and all they could hope for. That’s changing and, on a historical scale, very quickly. I’ve read of Chinese complaints of being undercut by low-priced labor in Vietnam and Thailand.

      Before I go too far afield though when that diffidence, and the uncertain and unresponsive policy it engendered, go away so does that Chinese cleverness.

      “Diffidence” isn’t a word I think anyone would use to describe Donald Trump.

      That’s the reason for Chinese uncertainty. When your policy is built on the assumption that your opponent will act as stupidly in the future as they have in the past you don’t have a plan “B”. Tariffs are the opening move but it’s a target-rich environment because that’s what we’ve allowed it to become. As a result the Chinese now have too look at their past advantages as targets for Trump to pick off.

      What happens when the Chinese can’t squeeze the intellectual property out of a company as part of the price of setting up manufacturing in China? What happens when America begins a forceful campaign against Chinese spying? What China’s come to depend on as an advantage over America becomes a vulnerability inasmuch as it precluded the need to develop home-grown resources. Ooops.

      As for Mnuchin, Ross et all, they’re smart guys so once a little trail’s been cleared by the Trumpian unpredictability, which is really inconoclasty, they’ll either follow along or be looking for other work. Trump has proven he hasn’t forgotten his signature tag line from “The Apprentice”.


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