U.S. industrial might is based on machine tools. These are the ingenious devices that, in war or peace, automatically drill the bores in rifles, stamp the fenders for Cadillacs, cut the turbine blades for jet engines. They range from small machines, such as workshop lathes that sell for a few hundred dollars, to giant, 404,000 lb. complexities that automatically cut and shape a 32-ft. section of an airplane wing, and cost as much as $400,000 (see cut). Even the giants are operated by only one or two workers, and speedily perform chores that would otherwise take dozens of workers or could not be done at all. Machine tools are the key to rearmament; because their production is months behind schedule, the entire rearmament program is lagging seriously.
Last week the National Machine Tool Builders' Association gave out some good news: in September, it reported, tool deliveries rose 8%, to nearly double the figure for a year ago. But at present production rates, the tool builders said, it would take two years to fill the orders on their books-and the peak of defense orders is still to come.
Problems & Know-How. Why are machine-tool builders so far behind? One reason is that the machine-tool industry must literally lift itself by its bootstraps; it must make its own tools before it can start producing them for anyone else. Another is that at war's end the U.S. Government sold 300,000 surplus tools at 15¢on the dollar, and swamped the market. For five years, machine-tool production slumped. Thus, when the Korean war broke, producers were deluged with orders for replacement tools as well as for the new types needed for the weapons of modern warfare. Typical is the case of the Cincinnati Milling Machine Corp., biggest U.S. toolmaker. Says President Frederick V. Geier: "When we should be devoting most of our talents to making the complex special-purpose tools that are required for our fantastic new weapons, two-thirds of our energy is being devoted to turning out catalogue [standard] items."
Every special-purpose tool is an industrial problem in itself. Last week Cincinnati Milling engineers were poring over a book just received from an aircraft company, describing a new kind of bomber landing gear. "These are not blueprints," said one engineer. "They just explain what [the company] wants and leave it up to us to figure out a machine that will make it. Nothing like it has ever been made before." In the same way, other complicated problems are dumped in Geier's lap. Samples: ¶ The Air Force wants a tool that can cut 2,800 Ibs. of metal down to a complex wing gear weighing 200 Ibs., with contoured surfaces, tricky drill holes, etc. Du Pont wants a machine that will crush titanium ore into pieces of a certain size. Because the ore has never been handled before for manufacturing purposes, Cincinnati must first find out its qualities.