If you own a manufacturing business, you might want to pay a visit to West Lebanon, N.H. Odds are you've never been to West Lebanon. You may not even have heard of it. But you will. What's going on there may forever change the way you do business--or perhaps put you out of it altogether.
Tucked away in an unremarkable industrial building on the outskirts of town is a little machine about the size of a three-drawer filing cabinet. There's a curious Willy Wonka look to it. Feed a bit of metal powder into its maw, and after a moment of whirring and digesting, it spits out, say, a valve for a diesel engine or a gear for a car transmission or a pump component for a hot tub. It's an odd bit of industrial alchemy to watch--mere dust transforming itself into highly refined hardware.
The little machine in West Lebanon is known as a powder metallurgy press, and to most manufacturers, there ought to be nothing especially new about it. Powder presses have been around for 70 years, stamping out everything from truck-motor parts to medical equipment. Remarkably common though they are, these machines are remarkably crude. Most powder presses are great, loud, chugging things, about the size and shape of a tractor trailer and demanding the ministrations of at least 200 people to keep them running through a workweek. Retooling the presses to switch from making one component to another can take days. And any parts the machines do produce are coarse things at best, requiring up to a dozen refinements and improvements before they're ready for use.
The West Lebanon machine, developed by Mii Technologies LLC, is a whole different industrial beast. It's part of a new manufacturing system that is fast, portable and computerized. It can be shipped wherever it's needed and easily reconfigured to make just about any part for just about any manufacturer.
A machine this elegant ought to have come from the R.-and-D. wing of a Honeywell or a John Deere or an IBM. Instead, it sprang from the imagination of a team of local inventors who might be among the most important industrial visionaries since Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first took to their workbenches. While the machine the West Lebanon inventors are giving the world is not quite the personal computer, it could become to 21st century manufacturers what the cotton gin was to the farmer or the loom to the miller. "If these guys have the materials and can automate the manufacturing process," says Kevin Prouty, an industry analyst with AMR Research in Boston, "that's moving toward a new level--toward a manufacturing renaissance."
By any measure, a renaissance in manufacturing is long overdue. Traditional powder presses are not the only low-tech way parts have been built over the years; stamping machines, casting machines and forging machines are used to melt or muscle metal into shape. Not only are these machines imprecise, they are also fantastically expensive and hard to come by. A start-up company that wants to manufacture parts for a new product may have to wait two years for a press to be built and delivered. Not exactly the quick turnaround time we've come to expect in the age of silicon.