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Why We Must Save the Machine Tool Industry in the United States

Reprinted with Permission from The New Federalist, May 2, 2005
Nancy Spannaus

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Why We Must Save the Machine Tool
Industry in the United States

In launching his campaign to save the U.S. auto industry, led by General Motors, Lyndon LaRouche has stressed the fact that the importance of this industry lies in its being the central repository of the remaining machine-tool capacity, both in skilled manpower and equipment, in the United States. Without this advanced capability, LaRouche argues, the United States, and thus the world, will lose its ability to launch the necessary reconstruction of the world economy in time to avoid catastrophe.

Back in 1997, just as he was launching his campaign for a New Bretton Woods monetary system, LaRouche wrote a major paper called “Return to the Machine-Tool Principle,” which provided the conceptual basis for policymakers and laymen alike to understand the importance of this crucial aspect of our industrial base. That article can be found on EIR's website, www.larouchepub.com. While it cannot be easily summarized, it is crucial that its central thesis be assimilated: The machine-tool sector is a crucial transmission belt for discovered principles of nature, into the design of products and production processes that will increase mankind's power over nature, and his power to progress.

Already, as EIR documented in 1997, the U.S., whose rise to world preeminence under Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on the spectacular development of its machine-tool capability, has undergone a major collapse in this knowledge-intensive area of production, as the financial succubus of post-industrial banking has led to de-industrialization, destruction of science and science education, and the general dumbing-down of our society. Between 1967 and 1993, the number of machine-tool employees and production workers in the U.S. had fallen by half, and the situation has not improved since. Rather, we have seen consolidation and downsizing in the auto, aerospace, and energy industries, which host a large portion of these skilled workers. - From the Top Down -

To understand the importance of machine tools, you first have to realize that an economy advances on the basis of an increase in potential relative population density, which increase depends directly upon the discovery of universal physical principles which can be translated into technological innovation. It is the translation of scientific principles discovered by man, into advances in agriculture, and industry, which have permitted mankind to advance toward a human life, rather than being forced to labor his whole day in providing for his mere physical survival.

Those societies which have fostered the education and other kinds of infrastructure to promote such scientific discovery, and then invested the resources to realize them in technologies, are the societies which produce net wealth, and progress, potentially for all mankind.

That said, let's look at what machine tools actually are.

What Are Machine Tools?

There are two types of machine tools: metal-cutting and metal-forming. (There are also jigs, fixtures, and so on, which hold the workpiece in place). A metal-cutting machine tool is a power-driven machine that performs operations, including boring, broaching, drilling, gear-cutting, grinding, turning, and milling, each of which primarily cuts metal (but also plastics and ceramics), by the distinctive action of a blade or tool attached to a rotating spindle.

Rotational action is critical in machine tools, and in fact, in the development of all machines. The lathe is also classified as a metal-cutting machine, but its mode of operation is different from other metal-cutting devices: In the lathe, the machine-tool piece is held stationary, and it is the workpiece itself—that is, the material being worked on—which rotates on a rotating platform.

A metal-forming machine tool is a power-driven machine that performs operations including forging, die-forming, bending, pressing, shearing, and punching.

Dozens of parameters indicate a machine tool's functioning. Just to mention one, a paramter which shows the advances over the last 200 years, is the increase in spindle speed. An increase in the rate of rotation of the spindle to which the blade or tool-piece is attached, increases the work that can be done. During the Nineteenth Century, spindle speeds of 100 to 750 revolutions per minute were common. Today, spindles can rotate at 8-15,000 rpm. Speeds of 30-40,000 rpm may soon be routine.

This increase in spindle speed necessitated an increase in the hardness and tensile strength of the material that comprises the cutting tool piece: The tool piece has been advanced from tempered alloyed steel, to tools with cubic boron nitrate diamond coatings. Each advance in one area sets the stage for an advance in another.

Through the development of the machine tool, mankind has increased its power over nature, during the last 200 years, by three orders of magnitude.

Today, various advanced machine tools use lasers, controlled electron beams, or plasma sources, especially for cutting and welding. There are further advances through the use of numerically controlled machine tools which use tapes, punched cards, pressed switches, or computers to program and run the machine.

The power of the machine-tooling sector comes not from an individual machine tool per se—although there are many remarkable machines, like the five-sided machine tool—but from an ordered configuration of machine tools. A tour of an advanced manufacturing and assemply plant shows that it is the ordering of groups of machine tools into a series of configurations that accomplishes work, and utilizes the full power of any one machine tool. Thus, one can see that an inventor would collaborate with a machine-tool builder to decide what kind of new machines would be needed to make a new product, and which new or redesigned machine tools would be needed to make the new machines that make the new product. It is the back-and-forth traversing in the mind, of this entire integrated process in making new machines, starting with the human mind that creates the new idea, that is the power of the machine-tooling process.

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