This blog post by Daley College professor Webb Hicks originally appeared on SME.org.
We often think of manufacturing in terms of the latest trends and technologies. However, we should remember that manufacturing is built on layer after layer of previous developments and accomplishments that have expanded our knowledge of the manufacturing process. Those using today’s manufacturing technologies may not realize it, but the tools they use are made possible by the generations of technology developers that have come before them.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I have encountered over my long career in manufacturing. It is remarkable how far we’ve come in manufacturing over the past 40 years. Manufacturing solutions today didn’t exist years ago, so our approach to solving problems were very different then. While going through some of the things that I have vowed to reduce or eliminate in my basement, I came across a stainless steel part that reminded me of an important experience I had many years ago.
In the early 1980s, the use of small computers in machine shops was just getting started. I was determined to join those who were applying computers to the manufacturing process. This was before IBM personal computers were available; I convinced my wife that if I could purchase an Apple ll+ computer, I could make some money creating NC programs for small machine shop owners in my area.
After getting the Apple computer, I had no idea how I was going to make my prediction work. In those days, all small computers were used mainly for games and accounting. There were hardly any computer programs for manufacturing. Then, in August 1982, I was commissioned to write an NC program for Illinois Institute of Technology Research in Chicago.
This program was to be a part of a work cell demonstration for executives at GM, Ford and Chrysler. The plan was to create the cell and then entice the executives to witness its operation after they attended the 1982 IMTS, also in Chicago. I would write four programs to produce valves, including the stem and the head of each one.
The cell consisted of an NC lathe, an induction hardening station, an inspection station (go/no go), a floor-mounted robot and a cleaning station. Up to this point, I had not used my computer to write any programs, including manual NC programs. I also didn’t know how I was going to deliver the finished program other than by using a printout, and I did not have a printer—which at the time was a very expensive item (I was able to add one six months later after saving up). I did, however, have two 5¼” floppy disk drives on my system so I could save what I wrote.
This project was helmed by the late Dr. Keith McKee and several of his colleagues. I must admit that they were much more advanced in the use of the Apple computer than I was. They had rigged an Apple like mine but with several additions to the backplanes on the motherboard. They created switches on the cards that they installed in the backplanes, and were able to control the off-and-on switches on all machines in the cell. Also, since their computer was like mine, I could deliver diskettes for my portion of the contract.
At that point, I thought all my problems were solved. Little did I know what lay ahead. At the time, I had spent several years in manufacturing but had just started to write NC programs and only on one type of machine, a Cincinnati Cinturn lathe. It in no way resembled the machine they wanted me to program—a well-used Takasawa lathe with an old FANUC control. The FANUC control took up as much area as the machine. It was a far cry from modern controls that usually reside inside a machine’s pendant. As large as the control was, I still could only view a block of information at a time. You can imagine how long and tedious it would be to troubleshoot a program on this machine. This was just the beginning of my programming problems.
I quickly learned that there wasn’t any G code that I could issue that would create a parabolic curve. At first, I thought I could string together a bunch of circular interpolations that would suffice. No dice. What I discovered was that this old FANUC control would not allow me to issue successive circular interpolations. Still, I was able to complete the first three programs after much correction. The nose on these parts had simple curves and responded to G-code commands.
It was the fourth part that gave us major headaches. The curvature of the head on this part resembled a parabola. My approach was to do some small approximations for the parabolic curve. Perhaps I could do positions around the curve at 0.001″ (0.0254 mm) intervals that would closely follow the curvature. Oh, how I longed for some sort of software that could do these calculations for me.
At the time, there was a software program for Apple computers called VisiCalc. However, it was a spreadsheet program used mostly for accounting and was the forerunner of Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel.
We were running out of time to complete the project, and I still had not been able to produce a workable program for the valve with a parabolic nose. The old FANUC control would go crazy when it encountered the G-code arcs. In desperation, I turned to VisiCalc software to solve my problem. Using the formula for this parabola, I was able to load it in one cell and replicate the X and Z positions. This solved my problem, and we completed the project on time.
I wondered whether today’s CAM software could solve my problem from many years ago. I discovered that Geopath software had provisions for shapes—and one of them was a parabola. I revisited the nearly 40-year-old blueprint, plugged the focal point and length into the software and voila! It returned the exact shape on the blueprint. I loaded this shape into Mastercam and created a program right away.
This reliving of my experience a long time ago reminds me of how much progress we’ve made since then. What took days for me to do back then now takes minutes.
Throughout my manufacturing career I have held many positions, including machinist, NC supervisor, department head and operations manager. My current job is as a tenured professor of manufacturing technology at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, where we opened a new, $35 million manufacturing technology center just before the pandemic. The center is filled with modern manufacturing, machining and welding equipment and labs. Here, I help my young students learn on equipment that could hardly have been dreamed of 40 years ago.
But that equipment—and the new skills of our students—are built on the untold millions of development projects like the one that produced my parabolic valve. Manufacturing technology has a rich history in this country, one that we can all be proud of.