Saturday, May 2, 2009

Old machines, new parts.

Went out today to see an old friend, do some work to machines he owns.

This guy, I was working on his machines a couple of years into my apprenticeship, a lot of years ago. A long mail from my dad reminded me that I had an obligation to satisfy the man who, ultimately, wrote my paycheck- and that man is my Customer. This specific customer, who caught me at the same time that missive from dad arrived, bore the full brunt of that lesson.

See, this guy- I'll call him Robert- is possibly the most disagreeable human alive. A whole bunch of servicemen had left his place of business proclaiming they'd never set foot there again.

I found out why firsthand. Robert has only one way to approach people working for him, and that is to scream at them until they lose their cool, and to bitch about the service received.

Robert came to me and started complaining immediately, and I remembered the lecture dad had mailed me, and I kept my mouth shut. He asked how much it was going to cost to fix his machine, and I told him I wasn't responsible for billing, though I was able to quote him our service rates. I also told him I was still training, and I would do my best to negotiate only a four hour deal for him for the specific job. And he asked "So how goddamned long d0 you suppose you're going to take?"

"Until you are completely satisfied" I told him.

That shut him up.

I finished in three hours, and I asked him to sign a service report that said two hours.

And he greeted me as if I was his long lost brother.

Back at the office, they greeted me with "Well, at least you never have to go back, since he threw you out". They were stunned when I handed them a money order for the whole job, and told them Robert wanted me back next week.

That was sixteen years ago. Since then he allows nobody else to work on his machines. Machines he imported from old earth at incredible expense. (Read: He bought at auction for scrap prices and had shipped as ballast aboard deep space freighters) I have hammered together several machines for him out of old wrecks, and as a rule, he's my most satisfied customer. Each service call since then has begun with an hours long discussion with him doing most of the talking about how much shit the world is in and how horrible things are; "I've never, ever seen it this bad" is what he says every time I go there. Each time he pays me cash and usually boosts my fees ten percent or more.

I haven't been there for six, eight months, but he greeted me as if it had been yesterday. And then I went back to the machines.

His are the oldest, most dated cartesian matter modifiers I've ever worked on. But they were made in an age when their technology was still treated as magic, and their manufacture reflects that respect.

Today I was rebuilding spindles. The spindles are high speed (for their time) and spin at 18,000 rpm. They actually have separate invertors! No actual electronics whatsoever are built into the spindles, they're literally just motors. And no air or magnetics, these suckers have actual ball bearings- two on the bottom, where the work gets done, and one on top- acting a bit like the rear wheels on a front wheel drive car. The bearings are still made in one place on earth, and every time I open a fresh box, I can smell the air of Tokyo.

Anyway, these bearings are pretty finely manufactured and take some time to install properly. It is incredibly important and a disaster to get wrong. Cleanliness is the most important issue, as a micron sized particle of dust is like the bearing running into a brick wall at speed. So I dismantle the spindle, and clean it. And then I clean the parts. The bolts. The nuts. The inside, The outside. I have a little glove bag which I then inflate around the composite parts. And I clean again, inside the box. And I pipe in 5 psi of .05 micron air. And then I reassemble the spindle.

Each bolt has a specific torque which I've learned by rote, and I have four snap wrenches set to the appropriate torque and can grab them in the glove bag by feel. Even after having done this a thousand times and putting all my ducks in a very orderly row, it still takes me two and a half hours to do one of these spindles.

I did two today. They came online with barely a whisper, a 34 lb spindle spinning up to 34,000 rpm instantly. not a hint of excess vibration. Nice to know I still have the touch.


  1. Awesome writing! Thanks! You consider setting up a tip jar?


  2. All I want is readership. And people who like what I write enough to comment.

  3. Came here from Bobbie's site, good stuff