Keeping up with the Jones

I remember being told as a kid that I shouldn’t try to compete with owning the latest and greatest items in the world or to impress people with social status or personal achievements. Trying to impress others with the things I own is not a way to gain true respect amongst my peers. But as I get older I do find there is a reason for keeping up with others.

I am from the age group, Generation X. I grew up with rabbit ear tv’s, pinball machines, and cassette players. In my childhood I was introduced to technology such as the Atari 2600, the Macintosh computer, and the DOS system for computers. It was all very elementary and simple. In fact, it was so elementary that there was no true reason to have it in our lives. It was more of a luxury and maybe had some potential, but it certainly wasn’t necessary to own.

 But fast forward to Generation Z. They have grown up with computers, laptops, and smartphones their whole life. This technology is not only useful but also necessary to survive today. 

For years I tried to avoid it. I would use a phone book versus google. I would use a map versus GPS. And I was one of the last people I knew that still had a flip phone. Ultimately, I had to go to a smart phone because customers were sending me pictures of furniture they wanted and my flip phone couldn’t handle it. At the time it was very difficult for me to adjust to the smartphone.

The speed at which the world moves today has forced me into accepting some technology in my life. But I always thought I could keep it out of my shop. Well, times have changed in that department too.

Up until recently, if I bought a new machine for my shop I could pretty much work it without even so much as cracking open the owner’s manual. On/off, up/down, left/right, it was all easily discernible and could go to town working the minute it was plugged in. But current digital technology has caught up with my analog past. New aged equipment isn’t as simple as before. Nowadays the machine is just one part of the equation to make it work. Software and learning the tools of programming are now what is required to complete the process. Let me tell you about the new learning curve that is here now.

Recently I have acquired a laser engraver. This is a machine that I have been thinking of getting for a little while. I wasn’t really sure what the capabilities of it would be, and more importantly, how to even operate it.  Once I got my laser machine I plugged it into my laptop. Somehow I thought magically something would happen. I didn’t even give it a thought about what I would see on the laptop. I just thought I could figure it out, like a table saw or drill press machine. What I saw was…..nothing.  

Many of today’s modern machines, such as CNC’s 3D printers, and laser engravers,  require third party software to operate them. At first, this seemed odd to me. Why wouldn’t a company provide their own software for their equipment? But then I had to compare it to a new tv. If I want to stream movies on my new tv I have to load something like Netflix, or Hulu before watching a movie. This is kind of the same concept. 

There are many different companies that provide these software programs. Some you buy, some you pay a subscription, and some are free. Keep in mind the ones you pay for typically provide online tech support when you need help. Where many of the free ones, you are on your own.

To engrave an image I needed a software program that could change the image into a g-code. That g-code is what the machine reads and then can begin to engrave. In this case, I used a free online software that I was able to download to my laptop. The name is Laser GRBL. At this time I decided to use the free software because I wasn’t sure what the machine could do and if I thought I might use it more in the future. This program works well but that is only if the image is provided to me. If I wanted to design my own image I had to use yet another software program. 

To design an image I used the software called InkScape, which again was free. Each of these programs requires some time in learning how to use them and what they are fully capable of doing. How much time depends on your level of understanding technology. In my case, I have not been keeping up with technology, so I still have  a lot to learn. But I was ultimately able to learn the basics where I could start using the laser engraver. 

In the end, a friend asked me if I liked the machine. I found this was not an easy question to answer. I realized there are two things to answer that question. There is the machine itself, and the technology of the machine. I compared it to two different cell phones. The latest iPhone and the older flip phone. Each by themselves could be called a machine. But the difference between them is the technology. Going from always using a flip phone and then being given the latest iPhone would be difficult to use because of the technology difference. But going from last year’s iPhone to this year’s iPhone would be easy to use. 

I think going forward if I try to keep somewhat current with the latest technology and software I think any future machine I would acquire for my shop might have an easier learning curve to it. 

So in the end “keeping up with the Jones” may not be important but staying current with them might be.

Chad Stanton- Stanton Fine Furniture 3-31-2023

6 Responses

  1. Interesting concept. I was a manual machinist, and gave it up because I did not want to go CNC. Today, I have a few electric tools, but it has been a while since I have turned any of them on, except the chop saw, I do use it occasionally. My shop is going the other direction, Hand Tools. Love it and don’t want to change. No electricity for me.
    Another interesting thought. CNC machine shops are now looking for manual machinist and can’t find them.

  2. With your knowledge and skills hard at first but in no time, it will be simple for you I never got one because of cost and I just make thing to have something to do but the program would be a pain for me. I ‘am sure you will be able to do great things with it.

  3. I am lucky. I am a full time hobbyist, that does the odd commission for friends and family. At the time of commissioning, I advise them that I do not ‘Rush’, and will take longer than a commercial shop. I have the best tools that I can afford, and use both hand and machines. As it is a passion, my enjoyment is in the making. I wont say I will ever get automated machines or a CNC, but to me that takes away the pleasure I get from hands on.

  4. I had a similar experience some years ago when I first got into cnc milling for some rocketry projects. The cnc opened up many avenues not possible with a manual machine but required knowledge of cad and cam software before even approaching the machine itself. And of course the machine has it’s own operating system to learn.

    This was a bit before Techshop went out of business, at the time I hadn’t had any experience with laser cutting/engraving, 3d printing, cnc wood routing and metal milling. I’m grateful they were there to expose me to these tools, they’ve greatly expanded my skill “envelope”.

    Still learning all the time, and I think this is the essense of what you’re saying. Keeps it interesting:)

  5. You are so right, I recently purchased a CNC for my shop because I saw a wide range of tasks it could help to bring my woodworking to the next level. BUT first, I had to learn the software that came from the machine builder and then like you I had to purchase software to create the g code to have the CNC perform or work for me. Six months later, I am still learning how to implement this new technology into my home shop. Not as simple as it looked . I am a “baby boomer” with a college engineering degree but away from my field of learning for most of my professional life as I have my own business for the past 30 years and have only had to learn new things that assisted me in my work place. I thought this would be easy, but found it to be very frustrating to say the least. I will not give up but as I enter retirement, this will be my fist project to master and create items for my grandkids.

  6. I purchased a CNC Router/laser machine in August 2020 and have never looked back. I still need to use my other tools to prepare the wood blank, but I love being able to create custom pieces for family and friends that would not otherwise be possible.

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