During the last ten years, Steingraeber & Söhne has brought five new models to the market, and CAD was used in the development of all of them. Even the Department of Experimental Physics at the University of Bayreuth, with its computer programs and laboratories, took part in the research. But the sound of a piano is multi-causal, which makes impossible the design of a piano in its totality by mathematical procedures and physical descriptions. In the end, in every high-end construction design, the empirical method must join CAD; there are simply too many sound sources, materials, and interactions involved in the sound-creation process.
Yes, our modern piano has a lot of machine-like features, mostly developed in the 19th century. This enables assembly-line manufacturers to regard it as an industrial product, a bundle of modules that can be prefabricated and then assembled. If this is well done, the result can be very good, and suitable for rehearsal pianos up to a reasonable or even high standard — but not up to a concert-level standard, which requires a richer variety of sound colors. These depend on the activation of not only the primary sound sources of soundboard and strings, but of the secondary sound sources, that is, the vibration of the entire instrument, within the dynamic process of sound production. Creating secondary sound sources is the major goal of master builders, and often stands diametrically opposed to the pragmatic wishes of production managers, and the characteristics of modern materials such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Though modern materials and processes may be convenient for use in CNC manufacturing, they often inhibit the creation of secondary sound sources; and woods like spruce, with their unpredictable natural variations, often do not permit standardization of the production process by computerized machinery.
We at Steingraeber do not like being part of a geriatric phase of the piano industry, and thus we are always innovating. In cooperation with partners like Richard Dain, Renner, and others, in the last five years we have brought out carbon-fiber soundboards, the Phoenix design with bridge agraffes, adjustable hitch pins, and the fast-repeating SFM action for upright pianos. We are offering half-blow and — brand new — Sordino (celeste) pedals, and in 2013 will introduce the newly developed Renner-Steingraeber-Alu-Action. We are a vigorous member of the music world, manufacturing 120 to 150 pianos per year. We will always keep our eyes open to using CAD/CAM wherever possible, without reducing the high quality of our instruments — and we will never stop using our hands when it helps.
Udo Steingraeber is owner of Steingraeber & Söhne, a piano maker in Bayreuth, Germany, since 1852.
In response to the arguments in support of production by hand, I find nothing with which to disagree. I would only like to clarify my arguments in support of the use of modern technologies in the production of pianos.
Most piano salespeople would agree that there is no shortage of consumers who begin their search for a piano looking only at the price tag, seeking the least expensive piano they can find. There will always be a market for that. At the other extreme, there will always be a market for those who require the absolute best that money can buy.
Anyone who has worked in product development knows that it is fairly easy, and not terribly costly, to get from the lowest level of quality to one just a little bit higher. However, the closer you get to the highest level of quality, the more difficult and more costly each additional increase in quality becomes, until you reach a point of diminishing returns. If we could quantify the value added for each additional dollar of cost and plot the results in a chart, we would likely see a variation of a normal bell curve, with a long, gradual taper at the high-quality end of the scale. Modern technologies have broadened the peak of that bell curve, lengthening the span over which spending additional dollars results in a marked increase in quality before the point of diminishing returns is reached.
Any business must contend with competing priorities. Piano manufacturers should always be engaged in maintaining and improving quality, but must also keep down costs to remain competitive. The traditional assumption is that reductions in cost are always at the expense of quality, and that the key to success is finding a balance between the two. However, modern technology offers many opportunities to defy the traditional assumption that cost and quality must always be at odds. Trading off man-hours for machine time can often reduce costs, but can also improve the consistency and quality of a finished part. The cumulative impact of many such solutions is a higher-quality product at a lower cost, which translates into a broader peak in the bell curve of value-added vs. cost-added.
This is not to say that technology is the solution to every problem. But we're headed in that direction, and it's certainly not fanciful to suggest that, in the not-too-distant future, most of the piano-manufacturing processes that today must be done by hand will instead be done by machines, and at a higher level of quality for lower cost.