the Carpentry Way: The Innovation Nation?                                                          

The Innovation Nation?

A few years ago I went up to the L.S. Starrett factory in Athol, Massachusetts, about 20 minute's drive from where I live now. Starrett makes lots of tools that woodworker and machinists desire, like squares, rules, gage blocks, straightedges, etc. I phoned ahead and asked if I could have a tour of the factory. They kindly obliged and I was given a personal tour, taken to see anything I wanted to see. of course, I first wanted to see the place where they made the squares.

That was a most intriguing visit, however one of the things that struck me keenly about the factory and its equipment was how ancient and, well, primitive the set-up seemed to be. The only modern piece of equipment that I noticed was a laser engraver which they use to mark out rulers. The rest were all traditional old-school metalworking machines. They even had some machining centers still in use which dated to the second world war. Their products are high quality to be sure, however I was really expecting to see a more modern facility.

Now, probably the main company I think of when it comes to L.S. Starrett's market competition, worldwide, is the Japanese firm Mitutoyo. I would like to one day have a tour of their facility as well, and I have a strong suspicion that it will be fairly modern with loads of CNC operated machines, lab-sterile cleanliness, etc.. I would be shocked if it was anything like the L.S. Starrett facility.

The other day I was reading a post over at the old woodworking machines forum about a member's visit to the Northfield company in Minnesota. You can read about it here.

Northfield Foundry and Machine Company is one of the very last US companies making heavy duty woodworking machines, and they are to be congratulated for their survival. I was struck when looking through the photos of the Northfield factory, that, just like L.S. Starrett, it was very old fashioned looking in its set up and equipment. There was the odd CNC machine, but mostly it was old school equipment making the machinery.

Here's a picture from Northfield's website of a brand new jointer:

Direct drive, 3 point chassis, 4 knife cutterhead - a classic type of jointer. It can be had with a variety of motors and with belt drive if so desired, though the machine pictured is direct drive. Current list price for the machine, which comes in three sizes (12", 16", and 24") ranges from $15,000~19,000, depending upon options.

Now, I would like you to take a gander at a Northfield jointer currently listed for sale by a machinery dealer in Pennsylvania, a 1961 model:

Notice anything? Yes- you're not seeing double - - itt is readily apparent that things haven't changed much in 50 years with the Northfield jointer. It is virtually the exact same machine, from what I can tell. Sometime in the 1970's the newer type of 'Northfield' badge was added, though I'm not sure of this. Perhaps some other minor details have changed, likely involving the motor and switching electrics at least.

I did a little more digging and found a picture of another Northfield Jointer, restored, made in February 1943, about the same time as my own Oliver 166 jointer:

I find this kind of curious actually. Why is the design of this machine frozen in time?

Let's look at another heavy duty jointer, made by a company that has been in business about as long as Northfield, Martin Woodworking Machines based in Germany. Few would argue that they make the finest shapers, jointers, planers and sliding saws in the world.

Martin's first jointer was actually a jointer-planer, and was called the T50. It was introduced in the early 1950's. I couldn't locate any photos of it, however I did find one of the next iteration in the dedicated jointer line, the T-51:

That is a 1960's model. Basic, stout, accurate, with a longer in-feed table than out-feed, which is desirable. Note the casting for the table is at least 3" deep.

A few years later along comes the T-52:

Not much has changed, though the fence support system has been streamlined and the base chassis, which is of concrete and steel hybrid construction to optimally dampen vibration, has been streamlined. Cast iron, if you think about, is a good material to make resonating objects from, like bells.

Then we see the T-53, in the late 1980's I believe, with control desk:

The fence support and movement system has been revamped and the fence has an attached swing-out sub fence for jointing thin and narrow stock. The control desk allows the operator to adjust cut depth without stooping over to turn a wheel or move a lever, and allows the tables to be 'sprung' when desired so as to allow slightly hollowed edge jointing to be easily accomplished.

The current model is the T-54- this one having the optional 2.5m in-feed table:


My point here is that the German product appears to be part of a process of continual innovation and refinement. A Martin T51 looks like a horse and buggy affair compared to the T54. Price on a new T54, which is 20" wide, is around $20,000. Not too different than a large optioned-out Northfield.

I thought I'd pop in a video showing the Martin, so you can see how it cuts wood, along with it's companion piece, the T44 planer (double click to get full screen):

Given the features, build quality and price, which machine would you chose, had you the means to buy? for me, the decision would require no time at all - the Martin.

And for a glimpse of how the Martin factory looks, here's a video giving some idea as to that:

It's impressive - except for the soundtrack.

Looking at other Northfield machines, I notice they make a sliding table saw:

These machines run anywhere from $16,000~$35,000 - -and then there is an extensive list of extra-cost options.

Again, let's compare to a standard Martin sliding table saw, the T-73:

The saw is priced around $24,000, and there are of course extra-cost options. Again, for the money, I would pick this over the Northfield without a second thought. I would only pick the Northfield if I was constrained to only 'buy American' for some reason - and I'm not the nationalistic type.

Anyway, my main question here, and I'm putting this out there, is why are companies like L.S. Starrett and Northfield seemingly frozen in time with many of their products? Why have they ceased to innovate?

I have been mulling question this over for a while, and asking other people in my immediate circle of contact about their thoughts and I really can't come to any firm conclusions about it. While there are some innovative products coming out of the US these days, like Apple Computers (designed here, made overseas), I am hard-pressed to come up with physical, manufactured products that are world leaders in terms of quality and technical innovation. That is to say, outside of military hardware. Now, why is that?

I know in my own work that with every piece I make, I learn a little something new, make a few new mistakes, have a few new successes - and take those lessons forward in the next thing I make. I can't see how one would not do that, unless one preferred to be asleep at the wheel as it were, avoiding risk and always working well within one's conceived limits. Or is it something else?

Adapt or die - isn't that a mantra for survival on this earth? Why are these American companies not doing that? What will become of them eventually - can they maintain this approach?

Or, another way of looking at is that these companies have become too comfortable with an earlier adaptation they made and are now afraid to change. As George Bernard Shaw, Irish dramatist said in his 1903 work Man and Superman "Maxims for Revolutionists":
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
I would be quite interested to know what readers think. Is is a cultural difference between Germans and Americans? Are there German companies of a similar kind to L.S. Starrett and Northfield to be found, making essentially the same products as they did 50 years ago or more, with much the same production equipment and infrastructure?

I visited a temple carpentry outfit in Ōsaka when I was last in Japan - in business since 1400. What could be more traditional? Their shop was a bit of a surprise as it had plenty of modern equipment in it.

Even staid old Morgan cars in Britain, which eschews an assembly line and pushes the vehicles around from building to buildings has more up-to-date vehicle models (the 'Plus-8') in it's line up - they're not simply making the same cars they made 50 years ago.

Americans were once the most innovative people on earth - in the 1850~1900 period at least. What has changed that? Is it the education system? Is is complacency? What?

As a final piece to think about, I'll leave you a link by a writer for Foreign Policy Magazine, David Rothkopf, a piece entitled, "The Myth of the Innovation Nation" from January of this year. Enjoy - and please share your thoughts.

Thanks for coming by The Carpentry Way.