From the Shop: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

The Blackfly CNC router
The Blackfly CNC router

About a year and a half ago, I decided I needed a CNC router for Blackfly, because…well, if you look at US manufacturing data, you can see that we’re making almost twice as much in this country, with a third fewer workers than 30 years ago.  With as much as we hear about the death of American manufacturing, it’s almost hard to believe, but when you think about the advances in technology, it makes sense that we’d be seeing huge increases in productivity.  And as the cost of those technologies decreases, it filters down to smaller and smaller operations, like my goofy little canoe company.

Some assembly required
Some assembly required

So after a few months of head scratching, reading reviews, comparing options, running cost/benefit numbers, and my usual geeking out and learning as much as I could and overthinking things, I picked out a kit and pulled the trigger.  Once it all came together and started moving on it’s own, it became obvious this thing was going to be ludicrously useful.  Oh, and there was going to be a steep learning curve.

Oops.  there should be a "G0Z0.1" in the code there somewhere....
Oops. there should be a “G0Z0.1” in the code there somewhere….

But eventually, I got a lot of it sorted out, sorted out the proper bits for cutting saddles.

I'm always a little frightened when this thing spins up to 24,000 RPM
I’m always a little frightened when this thing spins up to 24,000 RPM
Cutting saddles.  these are the back half of a Tandem Saddle.
Cutting saddles. these are the back half of a Tandem Saddle.

Cutting saddles is the most frequent task for the machine.  I was previously getting them water jet cut, but doing it in house saves a good bit of cost  and takes about 5 minutes each; 5 minutes I can spend working on other things.

But there are plenty of other jobs it makes so much easier, and less boring. Previously, I was drilling holes in the thwarts on a drill press.  Between counterbores for the the thwart screws, countersink for the dowel in the middle, airbag lacing holes, etc, there were about 10 holes I had to put in each one.  Now it’s down to… eh, I don’t really know, I just load 28 thwarts on the machine and hit go and let it do it’s thing.

Drilling holes in thwarts is boring.
Drilling holes in thwarts is boring.

I use plastic rods to hold the footpegs to the saddle.  Each rod needs to have pilot holes drilled for the screws.  I used to get blisters from trying to hold onto the rods while I drilled them on the drill press.  And it’s tedious, monotonous work.

Footpeg dowel pilot holes.  the plastic shavings tend to build up on the bit, so it only drills about a quarter inch at a time before retracting to clear the shavings, which is easy to do with a machine, more tedious with a human.
Footpeg dowel pilot holes. the plastic shavings tend to build up on the bit, so it only drills about a quarter inch at a time before retracting to clear the shavings, which is easy to do with a machine, more tedious with a human.

Ultimately, the thing that steered me toward getting a CNC in the first place was being about to do CAD designed plugs for boats.  It’s always been a challenge for me to get curves faired and boats symmetric when I’m shaping by hand, and having a machine do it for me was too appealing to resist, even if I do have to do it in small sections and put them all together.

Fake snow anyone?
Fake snow anyone?
A prototype of the Condor shaping up.
A prototype of the Condor shaping up.

As a one man operation, my level of productivity is hugely important to me, and having what is basically a robotic version of me that’s generally faster and more accurate has been amazing.  While it’s cutting a saddle, I can start gluing the saddle that just came off.  While it’s drilling holes in thwarts, I can be oiling the previous set of thwarts or running the next set though the table router.  At least that’s the theory, I do spend a bit too much time just watching it work, especially if it’s a one-off piece.  It’s really kind of amazing, both to watch it work, and to think about all I can do with it.  I’ll be pretty interested to see as technology continues it’s march forward, what will happen in manufacturing.  Economic theory tells us that increased productivity is good for the economy because it frees up workers to do other things.  I know it certainly has for me, and has saved me money, not only over hiring someone to help out in the shop, but actually over farming out tasks I couldn’t do previously.  But on the other hand, automation does reduce the number of workers required, which means fewer jobs.  As the price of technology like this comes down, will we see more small operations like Blackfly adopting it in innovative ways to make really cool stuff, and become larger economic forces?  Are there ways for small shops like mine to share resources that aren’t in use all the time?  All tough questions to answer, but for the time being, I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

A miniture Condor that started out as a piece of firewood from my log pile.
A miniture Condor that started out as a piece of firewood from my log pile.