Saturday, July 28, 2012

Using Home Built Equipment

When I wrote the other day about training on new equipment, it brought to mind a story from lab.

There is a difference between homemade equipment, and industrial equipment. When I am being trained on new equipment, or training someone else on equipment, that assumes that there are correct, known procedures for operating said equipment.

Such is not always the case. I work in a lab where we build machinery - which means a lot of what we use we make ourselves. I happen to be very proud of this fact. My Master's project involved building a machine that duplicated the function and quality of commercially available equipment, but for $10k instead of $250-500k. Take THAT.

Now my labmate has built a roller machine for his PhD. It is very cleverly built, with precise design and a fancy control system, and nothing else exists quite like it. His whole degree was based on the design and fabrication and testing of this machine.

However, he never actually manufactured anything with it.

Turns out, my work can use his machine to actually manufacture things. This is an excellent example of a cohesive lab research direction allowing students with complementary projects to leverage each other's work.

Or, you know, of me being lazy and not wanting to re-invent the wheel...

My labmate is ridiculously proud of his machine. He wired it up to run with a joystick. He is even MORE ridiculously proud of the joystick than he is of the machine.

Said joystick has a total of 23 buttons, in addition to the roll/pitch/yaw functions, and of course, the trigger. All 23 of those buttons have been programmed for some function, such that the ENTIRETY of the software needed to run this rolling machine is available from the joystick.

Whatever floats your boat, man...

My boyfriend wants to wire his truck to run from a joystick, too. What is it with men and their joysticks?

On second thought, don't answer that....

Now this labmate is actually pretty excited that I am going to use his machine to do real manufacturing (or, as close as we get to real manufacturing in academia... meaning, I am going to make more than five parts in a row...). But he was headed away for two weeks of vacation, and I needed to use this equipment while he was gone.

So he trained me to use his equipment.

We spent an afternoon doing a quick run through, and I took notes in my lab notebook and did my best to follow along. Then we ran some experiments together - me using my equipment to do the initial steps, then running over to jam my part in his machine and finish the process.

The results were gorgeous. GORGEOUS.

Then he left, and I headed down to lab to run some experiments, very excited about replicating these gorgeous results. I could not get the stupid thing to calibrate. I did EXACTLY what I saw my labmate do, and the roll just waggled around and never settled out to initialize. Fine.

I poked around, and discovered a loose connection between two cables. Excellent! Now the roll would calibrate. On to Step 2.

I tried to actually roll something - a blank, to begin with.

No pressure. The roll just floated, never touched anything. Hmm. Went back over to the software, and all my settings had been erased. Hmm again.

Reset the parameters, tried again, and now the roll just MASHED into my blank.

Okay. Now it's getting personal. Going and mashing my blanks...

I futzed around with it for a good hour, and the upshot is that I never got it to work. I sent an email to my labmate, and bless his heart even on vacation he wrote me back with a couple things to try. I attempted, but that roller still hated me.

Then he came back from vacation, and we went together down to lab, and I told him to just watch me run it.

I ran the calibration procedure, so far so good. I then went to roll something - "Wait wait!" he said, "Did you put that in force control now instead of position control?"

Well, no.

"Obviously it defaults to position control while doing position calibration, but if you are running with a force during rolling, you need to switch control methodologies."

Well, okay... not like you told me that "obvious" fact...

Then when I tried to change the settings, once again all my settings were erased. What's going on here??

"Oh, well that's a software bug - if you input the numbers while the data logger is running, it doesn't save them."

Ya know, these would be useful tidbits to include in training...

We discovered a few more little details that he had neglected to mention, just because it's so ingrained and obvious to him, because he built and programmed it himself.

By the time we got all the way through, I found myself irritated that he had forgotten to show me all these things, and just somehow thought I would automatically KNOW. It's not like I can READ MINDS, dear, you have to TELL me what you are THINKING so we can COMMUNICATE in order for this to work...

Then we both looked up and realized how much we were acting like a married couple arguing - and he laughed and yelled, "And we're NOT ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS, EITHER!"

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