Monday, October 7, 2013

October 7th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

European newspapers carry pages of 'positions vacant' - many are small adverts, often just three lines of text from those offering employment. I do not see the same in developing nations, and wonder why. I guess that there is the challenge of over-response, principally by those without suitable experience. Conversely, last year we advertised for a nurse for rural developments, with full flight training as part of the package. We did not get a single reply from a Ghanaian nurse. The position is still open for the right Ghanaian candidate!

In 1985, I responded to an advert for a 'Trainee Robotics Programmer'. The small company ran a three line advert in the newspaper. I responded. The interview was fun; the dirty office, the noise of fabrication going on across the hallway. Thirty-tonne presses slamming tools through steel plates, the reverberation making water in my glass produce circular patterns. The dust of production could be tasted on a discerning tongue, the smell of oil, slipping hydraulic clutch-plates and cutting fluids providing specialist perfume, for those who know how to appreciate it. 

Engineering is like a fine wine; you either appreciate it or reject it. Those who reject it can never know the pleasures it can give. All the better for the connoisseurs of making things, metal, oil, hydraulics, pneumatics and electronics.

The machine to be programmed was a SHAPE-50 punch-press - the second one ever produced. At 200 holes per minute in 2mm steel it was fast - then (today's standards surpass 800hpm). The machine whirred and banged, the guards vibrating with every punch. The thirty-tool carousel changed punches and dies in under 5 seconds. The locking pins withdrew with a clunk, the large circular steel tool holder rotated to its new position, and the top and bottom pins relocated with a satisfying thud, ready for the bang-bang-bang of punching to resume with the new tool!

I fell in love with the machine, and would even have taken the job for no pay. This was manufacturing at the cutting edge, for its day. I wanted to be a part of it.

The company offered me an apprenticeship. The pay was poor, yet the learning opportunity great. I would start by sweeping around the machine, cleaning up and operating. That was good enough for me. Watching things being made, assessing the cutting speeds, the tooling systems, the control technology, hydraulics and pneumatics. Soon, I found myself in the part-programming room. 

Each drawing that came in - whether for a car, aircraft, machine or simply a washer for a specialist application - had to be visually converted into a developed blank, then hand programmed for the machine to execute its transformation. It really is magical to watch a blank sheet of metal transmutate from nothing to finished product in front of your eyes. It is even more special when you know that the music to which the machine dances has been written by your own hand! 

A few months, and thousands of robotic part-programmes later, came a surprise. My boss and mentor was leaving. I was instantly promoted and given the reins of the part-programming and CNC-production operations, reporting directly to the Managing Director. In less than a year from starting, I had earned the respect of the team, and been involved in so many production items. My willingness to work long hours, six and often seven days per week, along with my desire to learn and contribute to the development of the company, without asking for more money, was rewarded in a fraction of the time I had expected. Such is serendipity.

Working on production of such a range of parts gave me insight to many different industries, and the ability to communicate with many different designers and professionals. I can look at many buildings in Europe and know that there are parts in them that I wrote the programmes for. Many vehicles (some of them probably still on the road) that I wrote the programme for essential parts in their engines, suspension, braking and other systems. At one point there were police cars carrying devices that I had been involved in the design and production of - and all of this gave me a satisfaction that cannot be described, purchased or given away. It is a satisfaction that comes from hard work, determination and many long hours of working-out 'how-to-solve' manufacturing challenges.

One day, the Director asked me to visit machine tool suppliers and to be a part of the team in relation to a new robotic purchase. The company had a grant, and was ready to purchase a 'state-of-the-art' machine. Finally, we decided on the Japanese made Amada Pega 344 robotic punch-press, a new concept in design of such tools. With 44 tooling stations, some which could be rotated between hits, and the Fanuc 6 control system, it was, at that time, 'amazing'. The external part-programming system was a mini-computer, costing a great deal of money. I was given an extensive demonstration of its capabilities - and it was a very capable system. Not only could it save the part-programmes to punched tape, but also provided for a direct-transfer from computer-to-controller using DNC (Direct Numerical Control). My excitement was great at receiving such new marvels to make work.

With just two weeks to delivery of the new machine, I was informed by the Boss that the funding for the mini-computer and part-programming software had not come through - but that the new robotic machine would arrive on time. I practically fell on the floor with anguish. 'How will we programme the new controller?' I asked, with fear in my eyes, since any failure in programming would mean a failed project - and no more job! 'You will sort it out.', came the blunt reply, full of confidence in my ability to warp space and time, levitate, sing opera, dance, teleport - and clearly, magically produce part-programmes for the new machine. 'You have a budget of xxx', was the last statement as I closed the door behind me, ready to ponder how to solve the issues.  

The amount would not buy any powerful computer - but it would enable the procurement of an Olivetti M28 Personal Computer running the then new 'MS-Dos 2.11' operating system - with support for up to 10Mb hard drives (that was large storage then!). So that is what was purchased, and it came with its own GW-BASIC programming language - no other software - the rest was up to my creativity!

Learning to solve problems, and not to be constrained by the environment, led to the next few weeks being absorbed in learning to write a suitable computer programme that would enable part-programme production, interface with the Fanuc controller, and to producing a suitable production solution. It worked. Better than anybody could believe - especially me. My software grew in popularity, and later became the basis of another manufacturers own systems - being used to produce parts for almost every industry!

All because of a three line advert, and taking the risk of learning, stepping out and being ready to take on a challenge - working as hard, and long, as necessary to make it happen.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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