Swarfcast Ep. 11 – Mike Fair of Rethink Robotics on Friendly Cobots

By Noah Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Mike Fair.

At the 2018 International Machine Tool Show I recorded a podcast with Mike Fair, Product Manager of Rethink Robotics, a robotics company specializing in collaborative robots for use on the factory floor.

What sets Rethink Robots apart from several of the other collaborative robot companies I saw at IMTS is that their robot models have people’s names and they feature a display tablet placed in a position to resemble a head. The robot featured at the Rethink Robotics booth was called Sawyer. Rethink’s philosophy is to give collaborative robots, also known as cobots, a personality in order to make them more approachable to the people who work side by side with them. Fair said that industrial robots have always had the connotation of being dangerous. Making the robots more lifelike is the company’s attempt to create a more harmonious relationship between the robot and its coworker.

In the interview Fair described Sawyer’s roles on the shop floor, performing the tasks shop workers deem mundane, dirty, unpleasant and dangerous. He said that Sawyer is well suited for CNC machine tending, aiding in loading and unloading parts particularly during jobs with long cycle times. He said Sawyer is also useful for packaging and pick and place processes such as part inspection.

Question: Do robots scare you?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 10 – John Griner, Twists and Turns of a Hydromat Shop

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with John Griner.

In today’s Podcast we interviewed John Griner, founder of Griner Engineering in Bloomington, Indiana.

John has been cranking out turned parts for the last 40 years, and since the ‘90s his bread and butter has been the legacy Hydromat business.

He’s a renaissance man. He studies philosophy, flies planes and has played the guitar for 50 years. He has had 34 different startup businesses as diverse as centerless bar stock grinding, cold forming, video production, and an exotic animal business called “wild things.” But in the end, the one that always stuck was the multi-spindle/Hydromat business.

John Griner in New Orleans

We talked to John about how his machining business has evolved over the years. He started running single spindle screw machines, graduated to cam multi-spindles, then added Hydromats and finally introduced modern CNC turning equipment into the mix.

John talked with us about how he copes when deals go bad, how he finds good employees and why he prefers not to drug test in his shop.

Question: Is a strict drug testing policy a necessity for a successful machine shop?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 9 – Russell Ethridge Small Business Lawyer

By Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Russell Ethridge.

Today Brett Kavanaugh is being interrogated in hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee as he attempts to thread the political needle to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

In today’s podcast I interviewed Russell Ethridge, a solo practitioner lawyer in Detroit, who also listens to cases as a judge two days a month for the humongous sum of $15,000 a year. He believes the legal system must work for the guy accused of drunk driving for the second time and the secretary in the local real estate firm accused of embezzling $65,000.

Russ has been Graff-Pinkert’s lawyer for 25 years. I got to know him when he was spending a stint in Jamestown, New York, representing a French multi-national called Valeo. He sold Graff-Pinkert 13 Wickman multi-spindle screw machines for more money than I wanted to pay. Good negotiator.

Russell Ethridge

Ethridge has a knack for quickly assessing the nub of the issue in a potential legal hassle and pointing to a way out with the least aggravation possible. Many lawyers like to milk a case for the billable hours. Russ thinks the opposite way, always looking for the smartest, most efficient resolution of the problem.

Russ’s Dad was the Editor of the Detroit Free Press in its heyday in the late 1960s and ’70s. In Russ’s younger days he worked as a reporter for a tiny paper in West Virginia close to where his grandfather practiced law for 60 years.

Russ’s grandfather had a one man retail legal practice, which to some degree was a model for Russ. In the podcast Russ discusses the impact his grandfather’s funeral had on him when he observed the huge cross section of people who talked about how his grandfather had helped them over the years. Russell Ethridge—lawyer, judge, one man band—continues his legacy.

Question 1: Is our legal system rigged against the little guy?

Question 2: Would you prefer to pay a lawyer by the hour or by the job?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 8 – Electric Cars and 3-D Printing with Jeff Reinke

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Jeff Reinke.

In today’s podcast we interviewed Jeff Reinke, Editorial Director of Industrial Equipment News (IEN). He gave his take on several of the fastest emerging trends in the machining business, including electric cars and 3-D printing.

Reinke said that right now Elon Musk is suffering the consequences of overpromising and underdelivering on his products. He said that Musk is a unique car company CEO because when certain projects suffer setbacks he stubbornly charges forward instead of shelving them as other car companies would.

This boldness enables Tesla to develop innovative technology that sets the company apart from the established but conservative automotive makers.

Reinke said that when the big car companies start producing all-electric vehicles on a large scale Tesla will have to develop a niche to survive the market. Not having a niche could lead to being acquired by an established car company seeking to obtain Tesla’s technology.

Thirty four non-spring parts made with a laser-sintering machine out of Inconel 625 (weaponsman.com).

The big question is whether the majority of consumers will follow the electric technology or if they will stubbornly hold onto their current gas vehicles.

Reinke also said the advancement in 3-D printing is one of the current trends in machining he is most excited about. He said it is fueling the demand for customization and he is impressed by the cost-effective materials available for the process such as carbon fiber and metal. However, Reinke believes that for the near future large volumes will still be made with conventional metal cutting equipment rather than using additive manufacturing.

Question: Does producing guns with 3-D printers scare you?

Share this post

The Machinist Gig

By Lloyd Graff

How much would you pay for a bottle of clean water if you were thirsty and could not find drinkable water? How much would you pay for a room if you had no place to sleep?

How much would you pay for a programmer for your CNC machines if they were down there was nobody to hire?

We are apparently in a period, or on the cusp of one, in which there are almost no skilled machinists available. In such an environment the logical thing to expect is that men and women with skills that the market demands will begin to auction their expertise to those who will pay the most. We may be entering the “gig economy” for machining people with quantifiable expertise. Smart entrepreneurs will develop websites that sell manufacturing skills by the hour or by the day. Businesses have employed freelance specialists for many years, but today’s Google economy is empowering more individuals than ever before.

The machining world has thrived in the land of the reliable and predictable—long-term clients, machinery that lasts for decades, dedicated employees who spend a career with one firm. It has worked pretty well for both employers and employees in a period of employment stasis.

Ten years ago, some companies in the machining world would have extra workers paint the floors when there was no production work. They had core people who they believed in and who believed in them. Today, life is quite different. Skilled people who dutifully worked loyally for humane owners have retired or died in many cases.

Private equity firms with professional managers own many medium sized manufacturing firms and are acquiring more every day. Their mission is to pay off debt, build equity and sell the businesses to the next firm in line. They have a short-term horizon which affects their view of employees. I would think that they would buy into the idea of a gig economy where employees auction their services, if that was necessary.

Traveling Knife Sharpener in Paris.

I think the gig economy has plenty of negatives for both employers and workers. I write this as somebody who has hired many gig workers for both Graff-Pinkert and Today’s Machining World. Paying for hotels and rental cars for the pricier freelancers can bite.

For workers, shifting to new work environments is scary and can wreak havoc with family life and relationships. Stable businesses with long-term employees develop community and rapport. Gig people are often not accepted easily in that milieu.

I think we have a real predicament in the machining world in late 2018. There’s lots of business, but not enough skilled people in the wings to hire. Owners and managers have a logical reluctance to upset the status quo by hiring new people for $10-$50/hour more than steady, loyal current workers. Meanwhile, they see contracts for the plucking or projects running late or unfulfilled.

Silicon Valley has lived with this dilemma for a long time. Workers have been drawn to the riches of the Valley, but the side effect has been sky-high housing prices and cost of living. The buses on Highway 280 and 101 are filled with folks who commute long distances for the wages in Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Most of the manufacturing in the Bay Area has moved to Nevada, which is causing a similar mini-inflation in Reno and Vegas.

For the moment, I expect a significant bump up in wages in the machining world. It will be hard to stomach for employers, who are dealing with tariffs and escalating metal prices. The result may be more work heading to Mexico and possibly China and Europe. But American manufacturers are extremely resourceful. They have weathered 20 years of headwinds. They will train young people, get by with fewer workers and hire the pricey experts when absolutely necessary. We will see the machinist as entrepreneur in isolated situations, but I doubt it will become the norm in the near future.

Question: In the future will more skilled machinists quit full time jobs to become freelancers?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 7 – Dr. Martin Levine D.O. Talks Health Care in America

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Dr. Martin Levine.

In today’s podcast we interview Dr. Martin Levine D.O. Martin is a third generation Osteopathic physician who worked in a family practice for 30 years, treated Olympic athletes and gave Mike Tyson a pre-fight physical—twice. He also happens to be my first cousin once removed (that means he’s my mom’s first cousin).

Osteopathic Medicine uses a hands-on, holistic approach to diagnose and treat patients. The philosophy is to treat the body as a whole rather than just focusing on isolated bodily issues.

In the podcast Martin explained how our country’s current medical system rewards specialists rather than primary care doctors and why that’s a recipe for less healthy Americans and much higher medical expenses. He discussed the origin of the opioid epidemic in the United States and why it is so difficult to stop in our current medical system plagued by greedy pharmaceutical companies, unnecessary medical procedures and unaffordable mental health treatment.

Dr. Martin Levine D.O. helping at the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

Martin told us about fearing Mike Tyson might throw him out of a window while he was at his apartment drawing his blood before a fight in Atlantic City.

He also talked about his experience working as a physician at the 2013 Boston Marathon when the bombs went off.

Listen to the podcast below to find out more!

Question: Is the emergency room your primary care?

Share this post

Trump’s First IMTS

By Lloyd Graff

Today, a blog about America—the politics and economics—as we head toward IMTS and Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), which start on the same day in September.

Business in the machining world is thriving, though automotive is having just a little heartburn—not worthy of a Nexium, just a couple of Tums. The tariffs are barely biting yet, but the smell of them is screwing up the metals market that was smokin’ before President Trump shocked everybody by choosing to pick on aluminum and steel in order to wake up China and push a NAFTA deal through. Couldn’t he instead have chosen to penalize something like pickles and wrapping paper to make the point that America has been too nice for 25 years, and “we’re not going to take it anymore”?

Tariffs will cause a bit of a stink at IMTS 2018, but nobody, including Trump, knows if they will be a factor a year from now. The Chinese want to finesse it until Xi meets The Donald in November, and a new leader in Mexico may want to get off to an upbeat start in his tenure by negotiating a NAFTA compromise. With midterm elections in November and a bitter Supreme Court fight coming Trump could use a victory lap on his tariff gambit.

A word about the Brett Kavanaugh pick for the High Court. I don’t think the President truly cares if Kavanaugh is confirmed by the midterms. Trump paid his dues this time to the anti-abortion team by picking a strong Catholic with a Jesuit school education. His Gorsuch pick was the crucial one for him so he chose a pleasant, get-along, political guy who could smile his way through the Senate confirmation. Kavanaugh is another shrewd charmer, but the Democrats are totally dug in against him, and I doubt Republican Senators Collins of Maine and Murkowski of Alaska will vote for him even if he has soap in his mouth when questioned on his published opinions reflecting his views on Roe vs. Wade. If they vote against confirmation and Senator McCain abstains or votes against Trump’s pick, Kavanaugh is toast. This would allow Trump to pick somebody like Gorsuch who cannot be as easily categorized as Kavanaugh. I am making the assumption that the Republicans will hold the Senate in November. It is quite possible the Dems take back the House, however, from what I read.

The Democrats have a ton of money pouring into the House races, and a lot of old Republicans have walked away. The Dems have an enthusiasm edge and probably can overcome the gerrymandered districts they face.  It’s what we call democracy.

******

Getting back to business, the country and Trump have been lucky and smart in his first two years. The economy had some momentum eight years after the deep recession had devastated the country. President Obama fortunately was such an ineffective leader during his second term that he could only slow the economy down, not derail it.

Trump has been so quixotic and disinterested in Congress that he was unable throw out Obama Care. By losing the fight and being shrewdly disinterested in health care politics he was able to focus on getting a giant tax cut passed, with big positives for business. To the Democrats’ dismay the economy has roared since its passage. The economy has stunned the growth doubters by showing 3.9% unemployment and 4% growth last quarter. These are numbers many folks on the Left and Right thought we would never see again. Reducing government regulation and pooh-poohing the climate change fanatics without much push-back from the real people in both parties has shown mainstream politicians that environmental causes have little national traction, while economic well-being does.

Low unemployment makes strange bedfellows. The Dems portray Trump as a racist, yet Black unemployment, even in the worst areas, is shrinking. People getting out of jail can actually find jobs. The real minimum wage is rising rapidly even without legislation because companies will pay up if they need workers. Home sales growth is slowing in some areas because fewer folks are moving to find work, though the prices of existing homes are still being pushed up because family formation is finally rising again. Money is pouring into the United States with the repatriation of corporate profits that have been stuck overseas by repressive American taxation. The Fed is trying to push up interest rates, but the 10-year bond which dictates home mortgages continues to resist 3% because the world wants to buy the U.S. 10-year.

Most people think Trump is a scoundrel, personally. I think the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt even though it is demonstrating quite vividly that politics is a very dirty business with a lot of scummy folks. Is that news? If Mueller could nail Trump we probably would already know it.

Personally, I think Trump’s immigration policy is deplorable and bad politics. It appears that Attorney General Sessions is a nut on the topic of keeping America as much like his image of his idyllic Alabama as possible. I wonder if the Administration’s goofy anti-foreigner stance is an effort by Trump to keep Sessions on the reservation. A President always wants to keep the Attorney General on his team.

You probably disagree with some of these opinions. I’d love to read your comments and hope to see you in Chicago for IMTS. It’s going to be a lively one!

Question: Has Trump hurt you or helped you economically?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 6 – The Mind of an Auctioneer with Robert Levy

By Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast interview with Robert Levy.

In today’s podcast we interviewed Robert Levy, longtime industrial auctioneer and owner of Robert Levy Associates, a firm that consults with companies looking to monetize their industrial assets.

Robert joined his family auction business, Norman Levy Associates, in 1980 but only had the opportunity to work with his father for three years. He and his brother continued to grow the company until finally selling it to DoveBid (now GoIndustry DoveBid) in 2000 for $30 million. He stayed on the board of directors at DoveBid but then parted ways four years later, dissatisfied with the direction of the company, which many unhappy former Norman Levy Associates employees had already quit.

At the end of the interview Robert said, “I’ve been in the business 40 years and I’ve been in three companies, and I would still like to be in the one I was at originally.” It was an interesting comment, but my bet is that Robert doesn’t regret his life’s journey from stand to stand.

Robert Levy of Robert Levy Associates, Inc.

Sometimes you have to burn down the old to grow and thrive, and if nothing else just survive. Sometimes the clear choice is to sell out to a competitor or private equity firm. Or, you hire someone like Robert to help liquidate your assets that are not giving you what you need anymore. Then go build something new and great.

You still get to keep your fond memories of the past.

Question: Does bidding in an auction excite you or make you crazy?

Share this post

So You Want to Buy a House?

By Lloyd Graff

I heard a National Public Radio piece recently on the shortage of homes on the market. The reporter, Ben Marcus, was reporting from Denver on his local market, which is seeing prices skyrocket. He focused on the rehab boom. Rehabs on bathrooms, kitchens and basements, along with home additions are going nuts in the Mile-High City. The parallel phenomenon is that very few new or used homes are coming on the market despite ferocious demand. A partial explanation Marcus honed in on was the large number of homes bought during the recession which were converted to rentals. The fat and happy owners are now unwilling to sell units because they are making such a sweet return renting them out. If they sold them they would owe capital gains taxes and be faced with a difficult task of replacing their rising investment with a comparable or better one.

*****

I look over my own front yard and see several lovely suburban homes that my neighbors can’t give away. I see well-manicured single-family dwellings mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s—some ranch style, some two story—on 12,000 to 20,000-square-foot lots.

Kitchen renovation

The area is quiet, well policed and modestly taxed by Chicago (Cook County) standards. Average family income is over $100,000. So why is this a housing desert? The easy answer, and everyone knows it, is RACE. The neighborhood is 70% African American and 30% White with a smattering of Asians, Latinos and maybe a stray Inuit or Apache.

In my day job, I am a used machinery dealer who spends his days assessing the values of machine tools, looking for mispriced lathes and mills.

I’m also a huge baseball fan and I love to analyze Major League Baseball trades, looking for the next Justin Verlander deal that locks up a pennant for Houston while leaving Detroit with three very young prospects, a jockstrap and a pair of used socks.

If a house sells for $800,000 in a fairly White suburb 28 miles north or west of downtown Chicago but sells for $200,000 next door to me in the south, when if ever, will the price disparity begin to narrow?

I am an “expert,” I think, in pricing anomalies, but this emotional one defies my reasoning. I do not know the algorithm of race. I have spent many years trying to nail it down in an analytical way, but I cannot get my arms around it.

What I observe in my area is that the older White people are dying or moving to sterile institutions that cater to their needs. The wealthiest ones are moving to downtown Chicago, Florida or Arizona, or where their kids live if they like one another.

Some African Americans from Chicago or other cities do buy into my neighborhood, but lenders may not see the area as particularly attractive for appreciation. Young Whites seemingly are afraid to be pioneers. So, the enormous price differential continues, even in good economic times despite rising home prices all over.

Racial fear, animosity, naiveté and stereotyping are all at play, yet racial intermarriage is on the rise and Barack Obama was a two term President not long ago.

Things are “a changing”? Well, maybe. But when the spread narrows $100,000 between my home and a comparable one in the the North or West Chicago suburbs I will begin to believe it’s happening

Question: Is it stupid to buy a home?

Share this post

Swarfcast Ep. 5 – Esben Østergaard of Universal Robots

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

Scroll down below the blog to listen to the podcast interview with Esben Østergaard.

Today’s Swarfcast is an interview Noah and I recently conducted with Esben Østergaard, founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots, a Danish firm that sold out in 2015 to automation conglomerate Teradyne for $285 million.

Esben started the company on a shoestring with his partners in 2005. They struggled to build a viable prototype and then luckily found an investor who believed in their idea of a compact, inexpensive robot that was easily programmed by factory floor workers. The robot was intended to be used as a tool for a person, or “cobot.” It was not intended to be used as stand-alone automation like traditional robots developed for giant automotive plants, doing work around the clock on the same job year after year.

Esben got into robots as a child, developing his first crude robot to solve a problem for his father who was working as an engineer building the water system in Seibu City in the Philippines. At the time, his father’s staff was using dogs and piglets to carry cables through the pipes, but the animals proved unreliable and ornery. Esben developed a battery powered robot made from Legos to pull the cables though, which beat chasing dogs around the project.

In the senior year of his Masters Degree studies, Esben and a team of other students developed a robot soccer team which ultimately won a World Championship in the event. Later he studied and worked in Los Angeles and Japan, but eventually returned to the University of Southern Denmark for graduate work and a teaching position.

His passion was to start a company to bring about his vision of a low cost but exceptional robotic arm that would aid people on the factory floor, rather than replace them.

In 2008, with the company starving for the cash needed to develop the distribution and sales to reach the 25 units per month break even point, they found an investor.

Esben Østergaard of Universal Robots

Esben is delighted by the creative ways people are using his cobots, which most people can learn to program in a free 88-minute online course. Universal Robots are giving massages, being used in hospitals for rehab, and landing airplanes as co-pilots. They have even found their way into movies as villains. “You don’t even have to dress them up,” Esben says.

We asked him if he felt that robots would ultimately replace many people in the work force. He said that many companies who have bought Universal Robots actually end up hiring more people because their businesses grow.

Esben said that he sees the definition of “work” constantly evolving. He said that if a person from a hundred years ago saw a modern office she would not be able to identify a single person working. History has shown that people are driven to work, but they must keep adapting and constantly reeducating themselves as technology advances.

Question: Are you afraid a robot will take your job?

Share this post