Courtesy Charles S. Hutchins
Hot Tech Cold Steel book cover

Book Review: Hot Tech Cold Steel

Feb. 18, 2022
The tale of a pioneer in computer-aided manufacturing and NC machining.

Hot Tech Cold Steel is an autobiographical look at the engineering and entrepreneurial side of Charles Hutchins’ life. With a mechanical engineering background and education, along with a self-taught mastery of software and management, Hutchins describes a textbook case of leveraging the latest in technology and knowledge of an industry—machining parts and product—to build a world-class company, Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI).

Together, he and his well-chosen partners back in the 1960s and 1970s took numerical control (NC), which is now better known as computer numerical controls (CNC) and made it accessible and profitable for small and mid-sized manufacturers and machine shops. No longer would it be confined to deep-pocket companies making airliners and military platforms.

From a historical perspective, the book is a window on a time when computers were strictly mainframes, there was no internet or email, and good software coders were hard to find. It traces the changes in hardware and software as Hutchins and MDSI served as a midwife to computer-aided manufacturing, truly an industrial revolution that continues to evolve today.

Some of the innovations they birthed include computer timesharing over modems in the 1970s, the forerunner of today’s internet-based cloud computing. MDSI was also one of the first companies that pushed software as a service (SaaS), letting companies with few computing capabilities and little experience enjoy the latest technological advancements. In addition, the firm pioneered the business model of letting third parties develop value-added software that could be easily integrated into its core platform. And if clients had trouble with that integration, MDSI stepped in and provided all the help they needed.

MDSI and its clients profited handsomely. MDSI had one of the most successful IPOs of the 1970s, according to Venture Capital Assoc. The global firm was eventually sold in 1981 for $210 million.

The book also outlines a gameplan for today’s engineers and entrepreneurs who dream of starting and running a highly successful tech firm. From staffing it with hard-working and capable engineers to treating clients like partners, MDSI seemed to make all the right steps. And most importantly,  Hutchins and the MDSI team  first understood the technology and the industry they wanted to serve and had a vision of how to make things better for all involved.

Engineers and technologies will appreciate the details the author provides on going from punch cards to data tapes to modems, detailing the various hardware that was once high-end and its limitations in terms of speed and memory, as well as cost. They might also find themselves envying the engineers and others hired at MDSI and then pushed to learn and develop in an atmosphere that recognized and rewarded performance over politics.

Hot Tech Cold Steel, by Charles S. Hutchins and Stephanie Kadel Taras (2021). You can find it online for $18. If you are interested in winning a copy, please send an email to [email protected] with HTCS in the subject line. A winner will be randomly chosen on April 15th to receive the copy the publisher sent to Machine Design.

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