When I was a kid, I wore glasses that looked like Coke bottles and cost more than a Schwinn 10-speed. Thanks to ultraprecision machining, I now wear disposable contact lenses and spend less to replace them than I would for a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
As the grandchild of single-point-diamond turning, the same 1970s technology that made 14″ computer hard drives possible, today’s ultraprecision machining, or UPM, is responsible for making parts for everything from smartphone cameras to telescopes that can see back to the beginning of time.
Most shops are holding tight tolerances these days. What makes UPM parts different than those aircraft components you shipped last week?
“I think it depends on who it is you’re talking to—and how old the guy is,” said Thomas Sowden, owner of Contour Metrological & Manufacturing Inc., a job shop in Troy, Mich.
Sowden was making chips when the Nixon Administration thought it would be a great idea to bug the Watergate hotel. Since then, the accuracy of machined parts has progressed to levels unimaginable during the days of Flower Power and free love. “When I started machining, if you held a half-thousandth, it was pretty good. Today, we hold tolerances under a micron and impart finishes down to 30 to 50 angstrom RMS.”