It will take longer than you expect to get your parts from that cranky old machinist

 Instant gratification

We are living in a society that provides us with instant gratification in so many ways that we have come to expect in in almost all of our interactions.  On top of that, if you, as the customer, know anything about machining processes, you might guess that the cut time for your part will only be 10 or 20 minutes, or even 1 or 2 minutes. Knowing that, it can be frustrating to hear that it will take a week or three to get your parts back.

Sure most machine shops could turn that part around in a few hours if they had the tooling and stock material on hand (which they probably do.) They could do it if all they were doing that day was sitting around waiting for you to walk in. 

Why does it take 3 weeks?

How long it takes to make your parts depends on number of factors that you probably haven’t considered to this point. Below is just a short list of things that might impact the time it takes to make your part(s):

  • the quality of your design,
  • the number of parts in the queue ahead of yours,
  • the number of parts  you need,
  •  whether or not the stock material on hand,
  • the quality of your design,
  • the complexity of your part(s) and the fixturing required to hold it (them,)
  • whether or not the tooling for your project is on hand, and, also,
  • the quality of your design.

The quality of your design

The quality of your design may be the most important factor in getting the parts you need when you need them.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished making a part for someone and then they tell me they need to change the design and I try hard to ask good questions to make sure I’m making the part they need rather than the part they asked for.

A quality design doesn’t need to have solid models whe FEA analysis, it doesn’t even need to have dimensioned and toleranced drawings that conform to ANSI or ISO standards, it simply needs to have enough information to convey the design intent to the manufacturer with no ambiguity.  If you do this any cranky old machinist can make you exactly what you ask for.

Depending on the complexity of what you are asking for with your design a sketch on the back of a bar napkin may be all that is needed, but I’ve found in most cases that I would like you to give me a dimensioned drawing with tolerances specified for all 2 dimensional parts and a drawing and a solid model for all 3 plus D parts.

This speeds up the process for creating the manufacturing plan for making your parts.  It speeds up the process for designing and creating any specialized fixtures your part(s) might need and it absolutely makes it easier to create any CNC programs required.

First in First Out (FIFO)

Most machine shops process orders on a first come first served basis, and they need to have a week or two of work scheduled in advance (to avoid going out of business…) This means when you show up at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon they might not be able to start working on your parts for 2 weeks!

How many do you need?

Do you need 1, 10, or 10,000 parts? It makes a difference. Do you need them all at once or on some schedule.  You need to give the machine shop as much information about this as you can at the beginning it will impact how they plan the production and the design of fixtures.


Young engineers in industry are commonly referred to as “Kids With CAD.” Because you can truly make that CAD software sing. With blends, fillets, flat bottomed holes, under cuts, deep grooves, flat bottomed tapped holes with threads to the bottom…  the list goes on and on , and hey, sometimes you need those features to meet your design requirements. The thing is some of the more complex the features on your part are, the more features on your part, the more sides of your part with features, the more complex the set up will be and the longer it will take to make the part.

Tooling and Materials

If the machine shop you go to doesn’t have the tools or materials on hand to make you parts then they will need to be ordered. That process can take as little as a day and as long as two or three weeks depending on what is needed.

But I need the parts right now!

<< Watch this space>>

When you need your parts definitely has an impact on how long it takes to make them but only if the decision makers want to do you a favor. Your job at this point is to make them want to help if they can.  Remember, if you need your parts As Soon As Possible, it is likely to be your fault, not the machinist’s. Remember that when you talk to them. It’s also good for you to know that ASAP can have any meaning between – all other work stops or is put on hold until your project is complete – and – we will work on your project as soon as we get to it.

My next post in this series will give you some tips and tricks for getting your parts quicker, when you really do need them ASAP.



The 5 things you need to know before you talk to that cranky old machinist

Anyone who runs a machine shop has had the experience of interacting with customers who don’t know what they need. At DBT, I’ve had a $200,000 purchase order that was based on the wrong drawing, and at WPI we see it almost everyday.

As an educator I realize that in most cases it isn’t the customers fault, It’s my fault because I haven’t done a good enough job teaching them.  These are slides for a presentation that I’ll be part of next week:

The presentation is for PhD students in Mechanical Engineering at WPI but I think the information has value for anyone who needs to get parts made. Over the next few days I’ll be posting my thoughts and ideas of these 5 important topics.

As of this writing the slides are still a work in progress. Please feel free to email or call if you have thoughts or ideas to help me help PhD students get the help they need from machine shops around the world.


Can you still make good decisions when deadlines are flying at you.

In April of 2011 while driving to work I got a phone call from my department head. It was pretty uncommon and I was curious, and a little apprehensive when I answered. He asked me if I had heard what happened at Yale the night before. I said no, He explained. A student had been killed in an accident in one of their machine shops. After giving me the details as he knew them, he asked me how we could make sure that it never happened at WPI.

My initial response was defensive and I said “We have good policies,” but even as I thought it, before the words even cleared my lips, I knew that Yale had to have good policies too. The real question we needed to answer was how do we know that the students / staff / visitors will obey the policies.  And, what can we do to ensure that they do.

We have thought alot about this question over the years and have updated policies and made a significant effort to understand how to influence people to make good decisions. Every year as we get close to important deadlines for graduation we see evidence of bad decision making by some people, and observe others to consistently make good decisions. Pareto’s Law and a corelary that I propose here may explain this phenomenon entirely and may in fact help save lives in the future.

Pareto with his peas has managed to change the thoughts and expectations of people throughout the world and through the centuries. I wonder if there has been a bestselling business book in the last 20 years that didn’t mention Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 rule as many have come to know it.

Now, of course,  we know that he didn’t create the principle, he observed the phenomenon and reported on it.

Over the last 30 years as an engineer, scientist, and now an educator I’ve observed a phenomenon that may well be a corollary to Pareto’s Principle. I’ve observed myself, my colleagues, and my students, and I’ve told many of you about this, already, as the idea formed in my mind over the years.

80/20 Project Work

First we can all agree, I think, that when we take on a new project the farther away, in time, the deadline is, the less motivation we have to complete the project immediately. I think even whether we call it the 80/20 Rule or not, we know in our hearts that we will do 80% of the required work in 20% of the available time so there is no real need for that motivation in the beginning. I’m not talking about what we should do. I’m talking about what we tend to do. I’ve observed plenty of exceptions, usually resulting in outstanding work.

Now as the deadline gets closer day by day the rule still applies. Our motivation does creep up slowly but we still have plenty of time. eventually we reach what Malcolm Gladwell might call a tipping point in motivation and it begins to grow exponentially and we feel like the deadline is flying at us at supersonic speed. This is when we get our ass in gear and we really get to work.

Apparent Skill

We all know about potential energy. We talk about chemical potential energy everytime we count calories. And anyone who had Physics I can explain kinetic potential energy. I say we also have potential skills. These are skills that we still have time to acquire. I call this set of potential skills that we have our Apparent Skill or Apparent Skill Level. It’s a combination of the things we already know (the skills we have) and the things we still have time to learn before we need to use them to complete the project.

Let’s say our project is to drive from Boston to LA  and we have 6 years to complete the project. We have the Apparent Skill to complete this task even if we are 11 years old and have never driven a car because we still have time to learn. If we have 6 months to complete the project we can still pull it off if we are old enough to get a license. With 6 weeks to pull off the project we could probably learn to drive in time, but we would need to dedicate a lot of time to doing it and the risk would go up.  Inexperienced drivers are more likely to make mistakes, more likely to have accidents, more likely to get hurt, and more likely to die.  At six days out if we still don’t know how to drive it would be a stupid decision for us to try to learn “along the way” even though it would be possible. At 6 years out our Apparent Skill was 100% of that needed. At 6 days out our Apparent Skill is zero for all intents and purposes.

Remember our Apparent Skill Level includes the things we know how to do (our current skills,) and the skills we can acquire (the things we can learn.)  Since learning takes a finite amount of time, apparent skill falls off as the deadline approaches, unless we are proactively learning along the way.

Bad Decisions

If we plot apparent skill and motivation on the same time scale we see that the two lines cross at some point close to the deadline.  I call this the point of desperation. Motivation has becomes desperation at this point and this is the time when we make bad decisions. It’s when we decide we can learn to drive on the way to LA. It’s the point where we decide to stay up all night to finish, when we know we need to be sharp and make good decisions in the morning. It’s the time we decide to work alone in the lab even though we know that is against the rules and unsafe.

In the past 30 years of observing this phenomenon I’ve made my share of bad decisions, and I’ve seen, and and seen the evidence of,  so many more.  I’ve also learned that it is possible to change the equation that defines apparent skill. It’s possible to maintain the apparent skill required to complete projects even as the deadlines are flying at you. It’s even possible to make good decisions after you have crossed the desperation point.

Making Good Decisions

The best way to avoid the desperation point of course is to never get there. To acquire the skills and complete the project before the deadline arrives. Acquiring the skills and taking action to complete the project early on will keep your Apparent Skill Level curve from declining.

But let’s face it, if we wait to the last minute to finish our projects, we probably will wait to learn too. When this is the case, consider the possibility of moving the deadline. People hardly ever die on the drop dead date for a project. Think up a good excuse and talk to the customer (the person who set the deadline.) Even better than a good excuse, tell them the truth, some thing like: “I screwed up, and didn’t realize how much time I would need to invest to complete this project so I waited too long to start, and now cannot complete it on time without sacrificing safety, and or, quality.” Own the mistake and ask them to cut you some slack.

If that doesn’t work, or if you are too afraid to talk to the customer, ask for some help. Even if you cannot meet the deadline maybe you know someone who can help. If you don’t know someone who can help, find them. If they won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart they might do it for cash, the promise of a returned favor, or possibly as sixpack.

And, if all else fails, accept the fact that your not gonna make it. Accept the fact that the deadline is going to wiz past with a zinging sound. Own up to it, and move on (with a little more experience.) There is no true value in the bad decisions you might make and there can be significant risk to yourself and others.  It was just a few years ago that, Michele Dufault died while working on a project in one of her campus labs, I don’t know if she was rushing to meet a deadline or not, but she was working alone, in a lab, late at night, and these are the kind of things we do when we are rushing to complete deadlines. (

Please, please, please, if the deadline is tomorrow or if it’s six years away, stop and think for a second.  If your at the edge of your knowledge, ask for help. If there’s not enough time to finish, ask for an extension. If you think you need to stay up all night to finish, then there is not enough time to finish safely…

Making good decisions usually only takes a short pause.