Lots of people in the woodworking industry seem to be continuing with a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to the economic recovery, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing the pace of innovation in new products. The recent AWFS fair in Las Vegas was smaller than usual, but everywhere you turned there were intriguing new products, many of which have the potential to radically change our industry.

At the top of the list were the nine companies honored for product innovation as part of the 2011 Sequoia Awards presentation at the show. These covered a wide spectrum of products from big machinery like the SCM Group North America Stefani One Touch to small portable power tool accessories like the Micro Fence for Plunge Base & Edge Guide Package. The award winners not only offered products based in the fundamentals of wood manufacturing like the Leitz RipTec Cutting System, but also products that push us forward in areas such as environmental responsibility, like M.L. Campbell’s EnviroVar formaldehyde-free conversion varnish.

Enter the “black box” 

Although it’s not immediately evident from the award winners, some of the other new products on debut at AWFS gave me a sense of a new chapter in wood manufacturing that I believe we are on the threshold of. For lack of a better term, I call it “black box” woodworking. For centuries, woodworking has consisted of a very close relationship between a craftsman and a product, often with a fair amount of skilled handwork involved. Machinery added precision and speed to that equation. But some of the latest machines are so sophisticated that they would have seemed like magic only a few decades ago.

Increasingly woodworking today and on into the future seems to consist more of putting raw material or only lightly processed workpieces into one side of a machine (the black box, if you will) and then pulling finished products out the other side. One of the most startling examples of this was the Stiles Machinery Optimat BHX 050 hybrid machining center on display at AWFS. Basically, this machine tips up a typical CNC machining center on end and fully encloses it. You get a machine with a smaller footprint into which you feed parts blanks, and it does all the machining and shaping on five sides before spitting out finished parts.

This is just the beginning as the focus in wood manufacturing changes from the creative relationship between each craftsman and each piece of wood to a relationship emphasizing creativity in effective design, engineering and programming that leaves sophisticated machines to actually make the shavings.

The romantic side of me might mourn the loss of hand skills in the process, but only briefly. There is as much magic, excitement and wonder in some of the latest innovations as there was in the mystery of fine hand work.

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