Living in Jackson

CAD. CAM. CNC. What the ...?

October 16, 2020

I get it now. Michigan has been known for its skilled workforce for years; men and women with highly focused mechanical intelligence and abilities. When I was growing up, that was implicit, as was the knowledge that the three major auto companies dominated business in my home state.

But when our new tenant at our Michigan Center building, Levy Machining, rolled in rows of bulky CNC machines, I realized I knew little about what my uncles and neighbors did at the factories in Flint and Bay City. I knew they produced widgets for the car companies, but had no idea what the acronyms CNC, CAD or CAM meant. I became curious.

Mick Hartman lives in Standish and has a “man cave” with several CNC machines. My brother has been taking classes at machining centers in Saginaw and Bay City for over ten years. He patiently explained the facts of CNC machining to his little sister.

Turns out CNC means computer numerical control, CAD means computer-aided design, and CAM means computer-aided machining.

One process the CNC machine utilizes is a subtractive manufacturing process. This method employs computerized controls and machine tools to remove layers of material from a stock piece and produce a custom-designed part. The stock materials can be metals, plastics, wood, glass, foam, or composites.

CNC machines can also do additive manufacturing, by assembling layers of material to produce a form. Think 3D printing or injection molding. Our new tenant, Levy Machining, uses a wide variety of CNC equipment to make parts for industries across the country. Robert Levy told me they use CNC mills and lathes, wire EDM, and, of course a CMM for the final part check before shipment.

“We like all the space we have at our Falahee Road facility,” Levy said. “We came from a shop less than half the size that was down a muddy dirt road. Shipping companies avoided our dirt driveway, especially after a rain. We had to drive our loaded forklift down that road to the trucks. Then we got stuck. It’s easy to ship from all the loading docks inside this building. We can focus our energy on producing products with our CNC machines in this space.”

My brother, Mick, claims he can photocopy all sides of an object with his handheld laser, and feed the information into his CAD, computer-aided design. That program will develop the digital language that the CNC machine recognizes. Then he pushes a button on his CNC machine and the CAM, computer-aided machining, takes off and makes the part.

The automated nature of the CNC machining process enables the accurate production of precision parts that are competitively priced. “For instance,” Mick said, “the automotive companies make the major parts for a car in the house, but the door handles, taillights or the switches that run your power windows change from year to year. They are farmed out to small machining companies around Michigan.”

According to Mick, CNC machines are custom-made for different operations. “Whatever I can draw, I can make.” My brother’s CNC Router cuts bevels and shapes the inner panels of fancy kitchen cabinets. He can produce intricately carved wooden picture frames like the ones you see in museums. Once programmed by CAD, the CNC Router can produce in minutes what it took arcticians months to produce in the old days.

Those old days ended with the invention of computers in Germany in 1936 or 1938 and CNC machines in Traverse City, Michigan in 1940. That was before I was born.

We grow up and live out our lives seeing the world from inside our bubble, thinking what we know and experience is at the center. It turns out our planet is full of bubbles filled with highly focused people with specialized intelligence and abilities.

I am honored to be able to associate with such highly skilled, mechanically bright, and able men and women employed by the 18 different manufacturing businesses under our roof.

I am Laurice LaZebnik, landlady, 1300 Falahee Road, Michigan Center, Michigan