Monday, November 14, 2011

Import Laws

Sometimes you run up against something you just never thought would be an issue.

I called up a supplier today to order a 1kg bucket of fancy material. I had the part# from the website, and a quote for the price (a very fancy price, I might add), and my credit card was in hand to seal the deal.

"Oh I'm sorry," said the polite salesperson, "we can't ship that to you."

And why ever not?

"That material can't be shipped outside Germany because of conditions under the Missile Defense Treaty."

Say what?

Turns out if you coat this fancy material on, say, a warhead, it becomes invisible to radar.

Well I guess that could be a problem. So no 1kg buckets for Miss Outlier.

The only reason that product was on the website at all is for big industrial players who need giant amounts. In those cases the supplier company will go through the hoops of getting export certificates from Germany, the corresponding import certificates to the U.S., and all of the red tape in between. But for us tiny researchers requesting sample sizes (yes, 1kg is a sample size), it's just not worth it to go through the hassle.

Fine. Moving along...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Epic TearDown Day 1

We had an old piece of equipment in our lab. A dinosaur. It was designed by grad students way before my time, and was a typical research project in that it was clunky, inefficient, hugely over-designed, smoked when it ran, had more than a few pieces of duct tape and baling wire - but IT WORKED. I know it worked because the students who built it are no longer here - so they did indeed graduate.

And yes, actual baling wire.

It needed to come down. It had served its purpose, it was taking up space, and the lab has moved on to new projects. So guess who got to take it apart?


My favorite part of engineering. It took us two days to take apart this machine, and I just got such a kick out of it, I wanted to share with you.

Behold first, the original machine in all its strut channel glory:

Figure: The original

There's a heat exchanger hidden in there, a pump, lots of giant piping and valves, a control panel, and the whole thing is connected to an Instron. All sorts of mechanical engineering goodies.

Figure: The sizing up.

Any good engineer knows that half of the work of any project is the thinking that takes place ahead of time. The pondering, the contemplation, the method of attack. Never underestimate what looks like a nap - really the engineer is doing the heavy duty pre-planning... Here we see the men taking stock of the situation.

Figure: Helper #1 decides he needs gloves.

Figure: Really?
Here we see that Helper #1 in this attempt is donning lab gloves. Yep - you heard that right - somehow he thought that these blue nitrile gloves are going to make a difference in this giant, oily, grimy mess of a demolition project. Helper #1 attempts to defend himself, but Helper #2 and I subject him to merciless teasing. Personal protective equipment, and all that...

Figure: Drip pan. And drip bowl. And drip roasting platter.

The first order of business is to get out all the oil possible. The basic function of this equipment is to heat and cool a set of platens. The oil is the medium that does the heating and cooling - and the heat exchanger is to direct the heat where you want it, and the pump is to drive it all around. But an oil-cooled machine is also a pain (as opposed to water-cooled or air-cooled), because, well, OIL. It drips.

Figure: Yep, those lab gloves are really helping.

Oil is also considered a hazardous waste in Massachusetts, so you have to dispose of it carefully. So we drain as much as we can into barrels, and vacuum out whatever else we can reach with a designated vacuum.

Figure: Look at that grin.

Then we had to decide how to tackle the piping.

Figure: Giant pipe wrench, check. Lab gloves, check.

One person with a ridiculously large pipe wrench?

Figure: Show-off.

One person with two pipe wrenches who is convinced he has enough testosterone to do it himself?

Two people with two ridiculously large pipe wrenches?

Figure: Those faces! I die laughing.

Two people with two pipe wrenches putting some elbow grease into it?

Figure: All that effort for this.

Ah, success! Using the two-man method, the fittings finally come loose. And so they work their way around to the other joints.

 And you know I couldn't let the boys have all the fun.

Figure: Miss Outlier jumps in.  
Figure: Okay, maybe Miss Outlier will just be the reaction force and YOU pull... 

Then we moved on to the smaller fittings, much easier.

Figure: Stripped down.

Finally we are left with just this. The bare bones of the strut, and only the piping directly connected to the heat exchanger and pump that we couldn't un-twist, because the heat exchanger and pump don't twist.

Figure: Old-school lift.

The Instron had been mounted originally on a standard metal computer desk, but the problem was that the desk was six inches too short to match the height of the giant strut and piping placement. So we had jacked the desk up on two-by-fours (that's right, let's just stick some wood under that $80k piece of precision equipment...), in order to get the right height. Now that the strut stuff was disconnected, the last job of the day was to finally hoist it down.

Figure: Mr. Lab Gloves is not allowed to pose with the giant pipe wrench, he gets demoted.

Elated with our success, we called it a day.

Figure: Wait, something's missing...

And had some fun climbing around on the equipment. In my defense, some of the fittings really did need you to sit on top. And removing the two holding canisters also required somebody sitting up there.

Figure: Ah, that's better. With tools in hand.
Figure: The post-contemplation

The post-project thinking is also important. Again, don't underestimate naps, because if it isn't pre-planning that's going on, it could be the post-project debriefing taking place...

All the discarded parts in piles in the hallway. The facilities people love us when we call for cleanup, I'm sure.

The final stages of the project to come...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Elevator Pitch Competition

I have pitched my business idea in a type of business competition called an Elevator Pitch Competition, and I'm pleased to report I made it to the top 10 in my category - making me a semifinalist.

All semifinalists are invited to the finale event, but only the top 2 from each category are actually official Finalists who will compete again in tonight's finale.

I have to say that this whole event is definitely not run with an engineer's touch. To wit:

- all semifinalists have to show up to the finale, even though 48 out of 60 are wasting their time (inefficient)
- the 12 who DO compete as finalists don't know they are the finalists until their name is called (unnecessary suspense and stress)
- you have to check in to this event an hour before it starts, otherwise you are disqualified
- you have to have an official wristband
- your teammates are not guaranteed a seat
- if you ARE called up as a finalist, you have to sit in a designated chair on the front of the stage for the entire duration of the event (and it's long - two hours)

Now I realize the point of this event is not to be efficient and low stress - in fact I'm sure it's entirely the opposite. But it all irritates my libertarian sensibilities - unnecessary production and hoopla, that adds no value. But I have my best attitude on tonight, because I know my idea rocks, I present well, and I have a decent shot of winning some money.

It's much easier to have a good attitude when there's possible money on the line. :)

But I'm here now, waiting to check in at this ridiculous early hour, and I have to tell you - there is a red carpet. There are photographers. There is a designated paparazzi area with a branded (logo-ed?) background where important people will shake hands and the momentous occasion will be captured.

SO out of my element... where is my sister (the family's charismatic camera darling) for this sort of thing...? :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

3rd Place Poster Winner

Last week we had my laboratory's annual Symposium. My lab is actually a cross-departmental lab, and my advisor is one of eight or so professors in the collaboration (each with their own students and individual lines of research). The Symposium is a day and a half of talks by professors from our own lab, guest speakers in our field, a poster session from all current students, and a celebration dinner.

We just had a poster session this spring, so instead of requiring students to make a new poster, the head of the lab said that students could just re-submit the posters from the spring.

But I was traveling this spring to a conference in Korea, so I wasn't around to make a poster.

I really didn't want to make a poster this time around, so I just kind of snuck under the radar and didn't remind anybody that I didn't have a poster from the spring... therefore, I assumed I just didn't have a poster in the display.

There are prizes for the student posters. The attendees of the symposium can vote for their favorite posters, and the top votes get first, second and third place cash prizes. But because our symposium is small, and nobody really has an incentive to vote, the joke around the office is that the prizes go to the only three students that can convince someone to turn in a ballot for them...

So one morning while procrastinating from work, my labmate pushed his chair back, spun around, and said to me, "Miss Outlier - did you even turn in a poster?"

"Nope," I said, looking at my hands, "Didn't do one this year."

He laughed and replied, "I was gonna give you $20 if you won the competition this year, because I knew you don't have results to show."

Now that was a bit of a low blow to begin with, but he teases a lot so I didn't take it personally.

And guess what.

Instead of NO poster for me, turns out some dedicated admin dug up my poster from LAST year's symposium, and put that on display.

Guess what AGAIN.

I won 3rd place. And I didn't even solicit votes - I didn't know I was in the running!

Can I collect that $20, please? :)