As I reflect upon one of this year’s MoldMaking Expo technical seminars (Direct Metal Laser Sintering vs. Traditional Mold Building), it inspired me to reflect upon the technological leaps and bounds experienced by the industry over the past few years. Along with it many scoffers have come and gone, but the very technologies they disregarded have become mainstays in thriving shops, or at least led to tools that have allowed us to remain globally competitive.
If I think back a few decades, NC machines—the Neanderthal ancestor of CNC—were ignored for tooling applications or one/off prototypes. CNC initially was thought of in the same light—not enough ROI, output or gain for the amount of revenue/effort put in. So for many tool shops or even tooling departments in larger companies it was scoffed at. “It will never work for us.” Even if a small firm had the vision to invest, the cost of these early units was often out of reach and/or not “worth the risk.” But how many moldmakers today would still be around if that mindset prevailed? CNC—including EDM, CAD, CAM, PDM, office and communication software, etc.—are all foundational to the very survival of the North American tool builder. Even with this, we cannot rest on it and say we’ve made it. In the global realm, maintaining is atrophy.
So what can we apply over the next 10 years from what we’ve learned over the past ten? Definitely do not hang out with the scoffers. According to history, when two Russian scientists were striving to improve EDM technology, they found little support for their efforts. But today, few would scoff at the impact it has had on the industry. We have witnessed the leap frog competition of EDM versus traditional machining and the industry-wide benefit from this competitive scenario. Both are much improved because they have pushed each other. Perhaps DMLS is one of those emerging technologies deserving our attention—along with some others such as laser machining, nanotechnology, material advancements (steels, coatings and nanotechnology, sustainable polymers, etc.), CAD/CAM … you fill in the blank.
But I would be remiss if I did not mention the following: face it, if we can buy it, so can our competition. As we passed each other in the exhibit hall, marveling at the new technologies, perhaps we overlooked the defining difference: investment in people.