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'How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Lathe'

In previous blog posts, Dr. Dave Seaward has written about the importance of a fail-fast mentality. He emphasised the importance of failure as a 'fast-track' to success by encouraging rapid testing of hypotheses and a tight feedback loop of learning & improvement. 

In this blog, one of our Project engineers has written about getting over their fear of failure.

Studying at University, I calculated cutting forces using Merchant’s circle long before I ever touched a machine tool. I should point out that there were plenty of opportunities to do so in the labs, but there’s a lot going on at University and I can’t say I ever made the most of this access.

The thrust of University study is typically in a very academic direction; aiming to equip us with the knowledge needed to understand mechanical processes at a fundamental level, even if we have no experience of them in practice. This makes sense of course; Engineering graduates go in to a broad range of careers, and even subtracting those traitorous souls who enter finance, those who end up working within the field have no guarantees of ever going near a machine tool ever again.

Merchant’s Circle of Cutting Forces ©EngineeringTribe

The Lathe

The Lathe holds a sort of collective reverence amongst Engineers, and if it doesn’t, it certainly should! Whilst lathes have existed in some form or other since Ancient Egyptian times, the invention of a screw-cutting lathe enabled the standardisation of screw threads, which allowed for interchangeable parts and arguably birthed the development of mass production. They are a mainstay of every engineering workshop, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’ve probably been used at some point in the manufacture of virtually everything.

Screw-cutting lathe built by Henry Maudslay, ca 1800 (Science Museum, London)

I arrived at 3P not long after graduating, and have for the most part, continued to not use the lathe much at all. It was never for lack of interest that I hadn’t done much turning, nor that I didn’t know what I was doing, although a woeful lack of experience was surely part of it. Simply put, at 3P we have a workshop staffed by many talented people who would do a far better job in less time than I’d take at any job that needed doing.

A slightly pessimistic-sounding adage that comforts me is known as “Sturgeon’s revelation”, or the somewhat less printable, “90% of everything is crap”. That’s not to say nothing is worth doing and we should all just give up, but rather that the 90% is necessary for the 10%. We only get really good at things by doing them badly for a long time, and a failure is not such a problem if it’s on the path to success.

Failure, is important.

My problem here was that working on crucial parts for important projects isn’t the greatest learning space, and the costs of failure here can be significant. Hence, the fear of failure is greater. Another consideration is that Engineers tend to be serial worriers, and the worry tends to inflate our issues to far bigger problems than they are in reality. I often struggle with white-page-paralysis; a kind of determination to do nothing wrong that results in doing nothing at all, and working on the lathe had become my blank page.

I recently found myself needing to make a quick part modification in order to rapidly proceed with development. Everyone was busy, and I was encouraged to just hop on the lathe and do it. With the help of some of those many talented people I mentioned earlier, I got my tooling set up and started making passes. As the chips began to fly, a sense of relief washed over me, quickly followed by that familiar sense of joy that comes simply from making stuff.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve no doubt realised that I don’t have any radical or profound advice on how to get over your fear of failure. Oftentimes, it’s simply a case of rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in, remembering that if everything we made was brilliant, then none of it would be. I hope you enjoyed at least 10% of this blog post!

And that’s how I learned to stop worrying and love the lathe.

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