There has been a thread going through my mind involving the general field of machinery. The design of specialty machinery requires a great many disciplines, truly a mechatronic endeavor.
Over the years, machine tool makers constantly worked on making the machines more complex in order to serve the market with greater functionality. In fact the goal seemed to be to make the machines and control systems more complex so that one machine could solve a wider range of geometry problems. Unfortunately, this leads to ever increasing cost. Take a simple three axis mill and add a fourth or fifth axis to it and it’s not just the cost of the additional axes of motion that will impact the final cost of the machine. It’s the complex mechanics needed to support the fourth and fifth axis and articulate their geometry correctly PLUS the two extra servo motors and their respective feedbacks AND a huge programming effort to make sure that the coordination of the axes is as precise as expected.
And the mechanics have to be as accurate and reliable over hundreds of thousands of operations so that the specified precision of the machine does not deteriorate over time. So things start getting pretty complex. And when you make a machine tool that is going to cost $100,000 or more, you can’t afford the problems of a design that won’t hold up in production. So you do a lot of testing to verify performance, which usually involves a lot of custom measurement equipment and a lot of manpower and development time.
But what if you reverse the goal of the design process? What if the objective were to create a machine tool that has the lowest cost for a specific set of features. Let’s face it, if you know that you will not need 10’s of thousands of parts per year, or if the precision tolerances are not extremely tight, you can get a lot done on a budget.
Machinery cost is only the beginning of the equation. Amortization of the cost of the machine over the number of parts to be produced is critical to holding cost down and making a profit. That’s where the paradigm shift creates value. Lower cost also means smaller batch size when calculating break even points.
So the discussion of how to make a cheaper machine tool must be considered in it’s proper context. And history proves that it works because that’s what the folks at Haas did some years ago. They came up with high quality machine tools that cost $50K, roughly 1/3 the cost of the available technology. This opened up a whole new playing field in the CNC industry. They did the job so well, that they now do business all over the world with one of the most cost effective pieces of equipment around.
And now for the next wave. Tormach is producing a high quality 3 axis machine tool at a $10,000 starting price. Full CNC control. And there are others available from China and India, which while not to be compared on precision, may be exactly what a small company needs to get their product to the market cost effectively.
So the real trend is just getting started and will give rise to whole new layers of improved cost and performance. Personal fabrication technology is emerging all over the US through innovative small companies who are solving the most important problem of all. Bringing new products to the market cost effectively. I think there’s going to be some great opportunities.