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Ralph Cross, automation pioneer, MIT benefactor, dies at 93

Ralph E. Cross
Ralph E. Cross

MIT alumnus Ralph E. Cross, a pioneer in manufacturing engineering and the father of automation, died in his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., on June 26. He was 93.

As a boy, Cross operated metal-shaping machines and designed and made metal parts in his father's shop. At MIT, he studied manufacturing engineering and began to develop the concepts of automating machining processes, later known simply as automation.

After graduating from MIT in 1933, Cross returned to his native Detroit and rejoined the family business, Cross Gear and Machine (founded by his father in 1889 as Milton O. Cross & Co. Brass Goods). Ralph Cross and his brother Milton eventually took over the company from their father and turned it into largest machine tool company in the United States, with subsidiaries in Germany, England and Japan.

During World War II, the company manufactured machines to produce tanks, airplane parts and other military equipment. The postwar period, when companies began to replace scrapped or obsolete machines with those employing the latest technological advances, gave birth to what eventually became known as "Detroit automation"--in-line sequencing of manufacturing operations that utilized automatic material handling techniques.

Automation transformed American industry, particularly the automobile industry. Sequences of different machining operations could be carried out on a single platform, and to higher tolerances and at higher speeds than were heretofore possible. Cross, who put into practice the concepts of automation he had developed at MIT and thereafter, was in many ways the father of automation. He was to the metalworking process what Henry Ford was to the production line.

In the early 1960s, the company developed the first integrated manufacturing system for machining, assembling and testing transmission stator support assemblies; the industry's first nonsynchronous transfer machine for assembling and testing disc brake assemblies; and the first automated "cold state" engine diagnostic and test system.

Upon the death of his brother Milton in 1970, Ralph Cross became Cross Co. chairman, president and CEO. He served in those positions until 1979 when he established the Cross & Trecker Corp., a holding company combining the Cross Company and Kearney & Trecker, a Wisconsin machine tool maker. He became retired from Cross & Trecker in 1986.

During his career, Cross received a number of honors and awards in recognition of his contribution to manufacturing. Among these were an honorary doctorate of engineering from the Lawrence Institute of Technology, an Engineering Citation from the American Society of Tool Engineers, and a Corporate Leadership Award from MIT.

Cross was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1968 and as president of the National Machine Tool Builders' Association in 1974. He was named an honorary member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in 1979, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Machine Tool Hall of Fame of the American Precision Museum, one of only 20 to be so honored.

Cross had a life-long interest and commitment to MIT. He established the Ralph E. Cross and Eloise F. Cross Professorship in Mechanical Engineering and the Cross Lectureship in Manufacturing which sponsors lecturers in all fields of manufacturing. He became the first chair of MIT's Industrial Development Board when, in 1977, the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity was established. In 2000, MIT dedicated the Cross Student Lounge and Cross CAD/CAM Laboratory. Cross also contributed to the Ralph Cross Endowment Fund of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, which makes grants to students in manufacturing education.

Cross is survived by his three children: Ralph Jr. of Pasadena, Calif., Carol March Emerson Cross of Cambridge, Mass., and Dennis Cross of New York, as well as nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His wife, Eloise Fountain Cross, died in 1998. He was buried privately on July 1. Memorial donations may be made to the Ralph Cross Endowment Fund, c/o SME Education Foundation, P.O. Box 930, Dearborn, MI 48121.

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