Even when a piano manufacturer finally comes around to using a new technology, it is often not applied in a way that would use that technology to its best advantage. In the early days of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining, the human interface with the machines was very poor, and computer programs for generating the control codes were nonexistent. To enter codes in some early CNC machines, the engineer would print out hundreds of lines of code, then enter each digit of code, one at a time, via a handheld data-entry device.
In the 1980s, when engineers at Wurlitzer decided to use what would probably be called a precursor to today's CNC machinery to manufacture keyboards, they faced a dilemma. To accommodate the unique string and hammer spacing of each model, which requires that the keys for each model be of slightly different shape, they would have to program the machines multiple times. Rather than do the hard work of writing new code for each model, Wurlitzer's engineers took an easier path: They standardized the shape of the front half of the key, where all the complicated cutting was, by making it perfectly straight from front rail to balance rail, then concentrated all of the required differences in shape into the short space between the balance rail and hammer. To achieve this, the angle at that point in the key had to be extremely sharp. Many readers will remember the resulting so-called "dogleg" keys. The grain angle at the bend was such that the keys were extremely susceptible to breaking, and the torsional force on the balance point of each key was so lopsided and extreme that the key bushings on one side would wear out virtually overnight. Computer-controlled machining lowered the cost of manufacture, but instead of improving the quality of the product — one of the technology's supposed benefits — the quality was actually reduced.
Despite this sort of false start in the application of new technologies, there were other instances in which a new technology had almost magical results. The very foundation of the piano is its cast-iron plate. A multitude of earlier piano-manufacturing production problems had a common cause: the unpredictable dimensional distortion that occurs when such a large iron casting cools and solidifies after being poured. CNC milling made it possible to correct these inconsistencies — and getting all of the plate's critical dimensions right positively affects just about every operation that follows.
But there were some false starts in the CNC machining of plates as well. A critical concern was to precisely control the bore depth for each agraffe — the device that terminates the speaking lengths of the strings at the tuning-pin end, and also serves to control the note spacing, string spacing, and string height. Even the earliest CNC machines were precise enough to fulfill this important objective. Unfortunately, the machine's precision can be defeated if the plate is not properly supported on the milling table. In the early days of CNC plate machining at O. S. Kelly, the only U.S. manufacturer of piano plates, one could see the plate being deflected 1/8" to ¼" under the downward thrust of the machine tool. You can be sure that the hole was not drilled to the precise depth required. This and other problems had to be worked out before the piano industry could realize the full potential of CNC machining.
Newer technologies have also led to design improvements. Slow-motion photography has advanced our understanding of what actually happens in the dynamic motion of the piano action, leading to improvements in action performance. Computer-simulated motion studies have made it possible to predict with great accuracy the movements of action and soundboard even before the first physical prototype is built. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) measures, in cyberspace, the deformation of parts under the impact of controlled forces. This is not only useful in analyzing the action, but also in designing the ribs, to provide adequate support to the soundboard throughout the scale. Electronic equipment can visualize sound in a fast Fourier transform (FFT), which breaks down sound into the relative strengths of its harmonic partials. These sorts of tools can verify what we think we know and/or hear, or teach us otherwise. No doubt we have not yet arrived at the best a piano can be, and with the application of yet unknown technologies, we'll continue to make improvements.
China's Rising Middle Class
In nine years of traveling to China and participating in the development of piano manufacturing in that country, I have seen some amazing changes. Paralleling the explosion of piano manufacturing has been an astonishing shift in their economy. There is a new middle class, and expanding wealth across all economic strata.
Until recently, all enterprise in China was government owned. A few decades ago, most Chinese were in poverty, and wished to enjoy the prosperity they saw around them in Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, countries taught by the U.S. to prosper with free-market capitalism. China decided to permit private ownership of businesses, but these new privately owned concerns would be assessed a tax from which their government-owned competitors were exempt. When the primary goal of the ownership and management of a company became the maximizing of profits, rather than of employment, product quality took a higher priority. The new, privately owned companies had to focus on quality like a laser, to justify the higher prices they had to charge for their products in competition with tax-exempt companies. In addition, quality has its own costs, which further disadvantaged the private companies. To overcome these disadvantages, the best of the private companies sought worldwide for the best materials and technical expertise. Ultimately, these privately owned companies, in all industries, produced levels of quality that were rewarded with greater wealth and a rising middle class — the latter something that China had never had.