Industrial Statistics, Optics & Instrumentation


Above is a profit graph for precision optics normalized in 1997 dollars. As seen the profits have significantly grown over 4 decades. Optics are being used in many applications from instrumentation through military optics for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Aerospace optics are another segment used in satellites and space exploration. As technology in manufacturing and computer capability has grown so has understanding in optical science. Industrial growth in this business sector has kept pace with advancements in manufacturing technology.

Manufacturing plants: Then and Now!

While in class a few days back, I watched an old Chaplin film. Lack of audio really pulls you into the cinematics of the production. Created in 1936, Modern Times shows a factory floor at that time. With a Charlie Chaplin twist!

Charlie is a production line worker, working side by side with a few other folks. He is quick to get on the line and get to work. Aligning knobs on components is his task. One by one he twists the knobs with a wrench in each hand. You can see how his muscle memory takes over and the tasks seem to get completed with little thought and insight. Before too long, he becomes lost in his work and can’t keep up. He is moved to another task so as not to negatively impact the production process. You can probably visualize how the movie goes from here.

Fast forward to 2017. Personally working in machine shops for the last 25 years, I am sure my perspective is different than my classmates. I will take a swag at the differences anyway. As equipment has gotten more sophisticated, so has the technical requirements of both the leadership as well as the workers.

When I started in industry, there were still a fair amount of jobs requiring a diverse skill set in manual machining. Many shops had CNC equipment but they all had a manual lathe and mill. Cranking handles is whee you learn the fundamentals of how a tool cuts metal. You also learn to plan ahead. Each steps relies on how well you executed the previous move. Like a game of chess but with a block of metal. As CNC became more easily available for smaller shops the business continued to change. Machines went from 2 axis lathes and 3 axis mills to palletized 5 axis machining centers with 300+ tools! The machines are complex, sophisticated, accurate and command a high level of focus. With this specialization has also changed. Years ago you needed a broad base of knowledge. You may be milling in the morning and turning in the afternoon, planning you own steps along the way.

Now, the equipment does more and the machinist does less. Or so it appears on the surface. That is not necessarily the case once you dig in. Yes, the equipment can be run and monitored by a different skill set than years ago, but the technical skills of those doing the programming, set up, process development, quality requirements have changed to more thought based skills. Complex geometry, trigonometry, algebra, cartesian coordinates and computer knowledge are all required to be successful in sophisticated and demand environment.










Local business leader shares insight


In 2015 two student in a previous De/Re-industrialization class sat down with Don Brehm to hear his story and get insight on business changes over the decades. Below is an excerpt from that discussion. Don was asked about running a privately owned company and wearing many hats.


“I tell you it brings a lot of pressure in a way that you don’t get in a big company because if you’re heading up a small company you feel obligated to do well for all those employees. Their livelihood depends on you, and you’re constantly aware of that, that their well being financially and their family depends on their job, and their job depends on you. In a big company you’re kind of removed from that. You do your job, but you don’t get the feeling I think that, you know, that you’re responsible for a lot of people’s lives perhaps as much. Maybe the CEO does, but somebody in a lesser management position might not” – Don Brehm, February 19, 2015, 310 Marlboro St, Keene, NH


An interesting take away from this is how business differs in small to large companies. A cause may be the specialization that comes from defined roles in larger organizations. Although, the efficiency of task execution may improve with specialization, ones overall understanding of activities in managing the business may become limited.



Local newspapers capture the times!

Old news clips give you a peek in the past. A window to the soul of the time. April 17, 1993 in this case. Clinton just took office, the economy was rocky. One thing wasn’t though. Don Brehm’s desire to continue to change the ultra-precision machine tool business. A spin off from Toolroom Craftsman, Precitech would build machines at a price point that small optics shops could afford.

Toolroom Craftsman 93

Toolroom Craftsman 93-2

Toolroom Craftsman 93-3

Meeting local industrial leaders

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Don Brehm. I had heard of Don and his contributions to the ultra-precision machining industry. I had always heard Don was an interesting guy and I had the chance to meet him.

Personally working in optics manufacturing locally for some time I was excited to hear what he had to say. How the industry started, his impact with both Pnuemo Precision, as well as Precitech. These two companies were both builders of machine tools that are used in optics manufacturing. Much like a traditional lathe or mill but contain air bearing spindles and air or hydrostatic slides.

Ben Cooper, a classmate, in the De/Re-industrialization class, and I made the trek out to Spofford where Don has a beautiful home on Spoffford Lake. We sat down and it didn’t take long to get deep in conversation. Don’s knowledge of the subject was fascinating. We talked about many aspects of the businesses he owned and ran. We discussed lead screws and linear motors, air bearings and hydrostatic slides, venture capitalists and conglomerates. We even had a few minutes to converse on his recent handy work in wood sculpture and metal forging!  After close to 2 hours, I think I had finally exhausted my questions.

Don was whitty and sharp. I found out why many consider him the Godfather of ultra-precision machine tools.

The “Race to the Bottom” in Keene!

Recently, I read a book by John T. Hackett titled “Race to the Bottom”. The fictional story follows a mid west factory, Wiemer Industries,through decades of industrial and business changes. The story line is much like many communities have seen of the last 50 to 60 years. Aggressive growth, family involvement, community outreach, and taking the business public.

“I am not going to lament about that sorry event any longer. But I am sitting here with the full realization that this company is facing a series of fundamental challenges. In the next 18 to 24 months, we have to develop several new products and manufacturing techniques to assure our future growth and profitability….” (Race to the Bottom, page 137).

Much like Wiemer in 1973, some of Keene’s industrial businesses struggled to keep with the required technologies to stay competitive. Many employ a fraction of what they had in the past. Some did not make it through the changes in business climate in the 80s and 90s. Struggling to stay relevant in a demanding and ever evolving business climate was too much. From my experience, Kingsbury Machine Tools was one of those businesses. Their equipment was specialized for specific tasks and component manufacturing. In the 80s approach to manufacturing had changed and business wanted better flexibility in their machining centers. Many shops were starting to apply lean initiatives to eliminate waste from their value stream. Over production or inflexibility is a waste of capacity and the industry was shifting away from specialized equipment.  In the mid to late 90s Kingsbury tried to introduce a more flexible machining center called a Hexapod. For them it was too little too late. An increasing number of players were now in the machine tool market. They never had a significant impact on the market with this. Kingsbury is now just a handful of dated industrial buildings that once employed over 1000 skilled workers. Investment in your future are the right time is paramount to a sustainable business.




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