Does processing power mean the end of ‘old school’ skills?

Design optimization – probably one of the phrases burned into any mechanical designers psyche… But what does it actually mean? The mainstream view, in my opinion, is to create a design that achieves more, for less money, and with faster production times.You can also throw into that mix things such as decreased tool wear, less waste material, savings in packaging through components that tessellate and countless others.

processing power

CAD/CAM has certainly been a major revolution in my design philosophy, and for the last 10 years I’ve been using it as a fundamental aspect of every product I design – in fact, I now design products from the ground up specifically with automated production in mind – and I strongly suspect I’m not the only one, by a long way.

We all do this – we look at the available automated resources (do we have a 3, 4, 5 axis machine available, how many holes, of what thickness – so laser or water jet, etc. etc.)

But what happens when the wheels fall off?

What happens when the LAN is down, or when someone manually programs the machine incorrectly, resulting in a catastrophic failure, or when some lazy operator decides it will be OK to clamp the last bit of 50mm stainless bar with only 5mm left in the chuck… That last one happened to me last year, and my supplier was left with a $30,000.00 repair bill and a machine that wasn’t going to operate for at least two weeks.

So, what’s happened to design robustness? The ability to still design and make things when all the lights have gone off…

I fear that we are on the cusp of losing an entire generation of skills, as new design engineers are force fed all of the latest and greatest technological advances in manufacturing. It’s not their fault – it’s only natural that technology is embraced to its’ fullest extent, but I think there is a dearth of true innovation in manufacturing.

I was extremely lucky to have been tutored by a wonderful old gentleman who had retired from his position as chief production engineer at one of the worlds leading aircraft engine manufacturers. He taught me tricks and skills that I simply don’t see in a production environment anymore, not on the shop floor, nor the provision made in the designers model for a plan B.

Does any mechanical designer that qualified in the last 10 years know how to do the following? If they do, without Google’s help, I’ll eat my hat – how do you knurl a non-concentric part? Something similar in shape to a camshaft? The end section has had too much material removed. It should be a press fit, but it isn’t. Knurling it will achieve this.You can’t do this on the lathe, it can’t be clamped in the chuck/collet – any ideas?

And that’s the underlying point of this article – we’re in danger of achieving a dichotomy between the mouse and the workbench. I fear we are already there.

I watched a wonderful time lapse video clip several weeks ago of a relatively young man constructing a beautiful dining table out of scrap wood. No electricity was used.
Sure, we can’t factor that in as mechanical designers, but we should still keep in mind the ability for people to be able to make our products the old way, using wheels, levers and gears.

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