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Monday, October 05, 2015

An Application Engineer's Tale of Returning to Design

Last week, I accepted a job working as a design engineer again.

The engineer print.  It's been a while, my friend.
This meant leaving the world of being an applications engineer, or "AE", where my job functions included the support, training, and implementation of software such as Autodesk Inventor, AutoCAD, and Autodesk Vault.

Now, my function is to create designs for material handling equipment using those very same tools.  Conveyor lines, in a word or two.

My first steps to "learning the ropes" was helping another engineer create drawings for his project.

And I while I can't say that I was surprised at any one change in particular.  The experiences I saw were for the most part, what I expected. Yet, I still found myself reflecting on what I saw during week one.

Here are a few.

I have a desktop, not a laptop!

Well, this is different!
If there was a surprise, this was probably the one.

I've been running Inventor on laptops for over ten years.  I've gotten accustomed to just flipping open my laptop at home and running Inventor.  Now, when I leave work, I'm done with CAD until the next morning.

That also means that creating Inventor videos for InventorTales is on pause for the moment.  I don't currently have the gear.  But I am hoping to be able to do that again soon.  :)

Change is hard... For a reason.

Changing is one thing.  Making the right changes?  Another thing entirely. 
As an AE, running my own system, I could turn on a dime.  If I wanted to change how I maintained templates, for example, I just did it.

I could take a couple of hours to reinstall software if I needed to.  It just took a little planning.

Now, I'm exposed to the deeper ramifications to changing things.  How does this affect your fellow engineers? Will this "simple" change cause confusion on the shop floor that will cause delays and mistakes?

Change often requires the careful thought of a chess master, not the lightning fast reactions of a table tennis player.

Just because change is hard, it doesn't mean good people are unwilling to make changes.

One thing about change.  You can't avoid it.
My new coworkers have started asking me questions in Inventor.  I've gotten a couple of "how to's", and I'm more than happy to help.   If a new tool or process in Inventor makes sense, they're willing to adopt it.

Which brings me to my final point...

Know your product! 

Remember, tools are what make your product. Good tools should make a better product faster.
As an application engineer, my product was software, and the processes that surrounded it.  Software like Inventor and Vault, and their services were the product.

Now....  Surprise!  Material handling equipment is the product.  Software exists as a vehicle to get that equipment built.  It's a tool, just like the laser mill for cutting steel, and the router for cutting plastic.

No matter how cool the tool is, how pretty it works, if it doesn't help get the product made, then it's just a cool parlor trick.

In Conclusion?

First of all, there is no conclusion.  This story is still getting written and it will get written for some time to come.  I hope to be an asset to my new employer helping them make a better product, and I hope to learn a new set of skills myself.

In one week, I've only taken the very first steps.  I hope in the following weeks to keep taking those steps, and to share them with you out in the 'Verse.

Stay tuned!

Photo Credits

photo credit: href
="">Rolleiflex TLR on Rollei blueprint at Rollei/DHW factory Braunschweig Germany via href="">photopin href="">(license)

photo credit: href="">Choose Your Direction Sign House Gainesville via href="">photopin href="">(license)
photo credit: href
="">Changes #2 (lock) via href="">photopin href="">(license)
photo credit: href
="">A Worker at Linread via href="">photopin href="">(license)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The (Bald) Eagle has Landed

I think I'm quite ready for another adventure."
Bilbo Baggins - Return of the King

Time to find out what's over that hill. 
This week is a short post to announce that I'm joining Can Lines Engineering as a Mechanical Engineer.

I'm looking forward to getting back into a design and manufacturing again.

I'm sure it's going to be a new adventure full of new challenges and learning experiences.

I'm hoping to "relaunch" InventorTales as a part of this, and share new tips and new experiences.

Stay tuned!

Photo Credit

photo credit: Nick via photopin (license)

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Visit to Westec 2015!

I've had some time on my hands while I've been on the job market, so I decided to take a drive to the Los Angeles Convention Center and spend a short time at Westec 2015.  

A little tech in action
There was some pretty cool technology there!   

The first machine I saw was a waterjet machine made by Flow Waterjet.  It's been a little while since I've had any interation with one, but the most interesting thing I learned was that the taper (caused by the waterjet spreading out as it cuts through the material) has been eliminated by automatically tapering the head.

I also made a trip to see if there were any 3D printing companies there.  I did find the 3D Systems booth.  Most of the things I have seen before.  But it's always an amazing technology to see.  There's a certain Zen I find watching the machine build,   And the things have gotten much more amazing since I last saw it in the early 2000s. 

And seeing how it's a show for machine tools, I had to see a few more "traditional" CNC machines.  I only call it traditional because they're probably the oldest technology there, but event that technology evolves constantly.  

I was able to get a pretty good video at the Datron booth of a machine running toolpaths.  I wish I had gotten there when it was cutting the part instead of repeating the path over a finished part, but I'm sure aluminum billet gets expensive after a while.  Not to mention cleanup!  

Finally, I did swing by the Autodesk booth where they were showing Autodesk Inventor HSM and HSM Works.   As a long time CAD jockey, I can say that it's strange to see Solidworks running in an Autodesk booth!   But this is life in the modern era.  Autodesk is a Solidworks supplier after all. 

The Autodesk booth was like this all day! 
They were making parts on a Haas CNC machine, and they were getting a lot of attention.  I could barely get room to get the video! 

I was really amazed at how crowded the show was.  It was a zoo!  Which is great for the vendors.  I'm glad they're busy.  It took me nearly 45 minutes and repeated flybys of the SolidCAM booth before I was able to talk to a friend for 10 minutes.

But all in all, it was a good show.  I just wish I'd been able to grab a few more pictures and videos! 

And by the way, if you ever have a chance to swing by a trade show in your industry, I encourage you to do it!  You don't have to spend all day, you don't have to become the "turtle person" who is weighed down by twelve bags full of t-shirts, pens, and squeezy stress balls.

But see what's out there, and see what you thought was state of the art, may have past into history while you were hunched over your desk in the cubicle farm.

Technology will march on!  And it won't wait for you to make sure you packed a lunch. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

When is it the Right Time to Buy the Right Tool?

Recently I had the experience of changing my own front brake pads again on my runabout, the 2007 PT Cruiser.

A typical caliper for disc brakes. 

In the last couple of years, my schedule has been busy enough where it's been easier to take it to the shop, and pay someone else to do it.  But I decided to do it myself this particular day, because I missed that certain Zen I get when I work with my hands.  

The steps to change brake pads isn't a hard one.  It's a matter of jacking up the car, taking a tire off, removing the caliper, swapping the brake pads, and reversing the steps.

You can find the basic steps here. 

But there's always one step that makes it a little tricky.  

The calipers, which press the pads against the rotor to slow the car, are extended because the old pads are worn down.

One of my old pads vs the new.  You can say I got my money's worth! 

That means that getting the new pads to fit around the rotors, which means compressing the caliper piston, which means using a tool, improvised or otherwise. 

Many years ago, when I was a broke college student and would spend hours working on my own car, I would wrangle a the calipers open using a combination wrench or a screwdriver as a pry bar.  This usually included a lot of grumbling as I balanced the caliper in my hand an tried to get leverage with whatever improvised tool I was using.

One day, I was having one of those "garage conversations" with an old mechanic laughing about opening calipers.  He reached into his toolbox and said "buy one of these".  And showed me a caliper opener.

I bought one that same day.

Although there different styles for this tool, the one I purchased nearly twenty years ago uses a screw and scissor mechanism.  Not unlike the scissor jacks included with most modern cars.

The piston compressing tool ready for action
By twisting the screw, the scissors open, and the caliper piston compresses.

It has reduced both the time, and aggravation of getting the calipers open.

You may have guessed that the moral of my story is "have the right tool for the job".  As a matter of fact, I've written a post on a very similar vein before.

But that's not always part of it.  Many times, there always a "better tool".  But in order to enjoy the savings of the tool, you have to spend the money on the tool.

I'm sure there are a few of you who are thinking, "that tool is a waste of money, an improvised pry bar will work just fine!"

Are they wrong?  I don't think they are.  It's a choice they've made based on their own unique experience.

The other question?  Is there enough benefit to having that tool to justify the investment?  

That's the big question that has to be answered.  Depending on your tool, ROI calculators may be available, but do they tell the entire story.

Some other things that might be worth considering.

  • How often will you use the tool?  Are you going to use the tool every day?  Every few months?  Or "Who knows when the next time will be?"  The more use you get out of the tool, the better off you'll be. 
  • How much time does it save? If it's saving you 5 minutes every 2 years, and costs thousands of dollars, it's not as wise of an investment as something that costs a few hundred dollars and saves thirty minutes every few weeks. 
  • How much frustration does it save you? Are you, or one of your coworkers cursing a blue streak while trying to "make it work"?  Someone who's frustrated can make other costly mistakes.  That frustration can even seep into other projects. 
  • There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it twice! In other words, how much does it cost *not* to have the right tool? Are you scrapping parts because it takes more than one try to do what the right tool could do once?  Scrap costs money too. 
The right tool can turn a frustrating job into a "cakewalk",  But at the same time, buying a tool "to have it" can get expensive quickly. 

Whether it's a caliper opener costing 15 US Dollars, a CNC machine costing 100,000 US Dollars, or a CAD Program costing 10,000 US Dollars, it's not always a simple decision.  

From the wrench to the CNC machine in the background, every tool has to
make more than it cost to make its purchase worth while.
Image courtesy KRF Machine
That's where consideration, analysis, and a large dose of experience have to combined to decide when the time is right to make that investment. 

Photo Credits:

photo credit: Primed Caliper via photopin (license)