A longer version
of this story was posted a few years ago as one of my
articles, "Not Such a Smooth Operator," but I figure enough time has passed that
it would be OK to use it as part of my new Out of Order series. Do you
have a good work-related anecdote to share? Please
to me for consideration. Thanks.
During my electronics technician days at the Westinghouse Electric Company's
Oceanic Division in Annapolis, Maryland, I spent the first couple years building
printed circuit boards, wiring harnesses, and system-level assemblies for U.S. Navy
sonar systems. We had some really slick stuff like towed vehicles with transducer
arrays along the sides, nose cones for smart torpedoes, flow sensors, proximity
fuse elements, etc. Exposure to all that, and the super-smart people that designed
it, fuelled my desire to go to the trouble of earning an engineering degree.
One of my tasks for a while was to build
the transducer arrays, which entailed building the hundreds of tiny transducer elements.
One of the phased array acoustic antennas was mounted on each side of the
AN/AQS-14 towed sonar vehicle. A
CH-53 helicopter deployed the vehicle or it could be towed off
the transom of a ship. Shortly after we began delivering the systems, an F-16 went
down off the coast of San Diego, and one of our first AQS-14s was sent to image
the ocean bottom during the search. It managed to locate the wreckage. The images
that we saw were incredible! You would have sworn that they were optical photographs
instead of acoustically generated images. We could see bolts in the landing gear
and panel lines around the canopy. It was amazing technology for the early 1980s.
Back to my saga,
though. During the construction of the transducer modules, we attached aluminum
bases to a precision fixture that sat on a granite surface table. It was very smooth
and very flat. That table was measured and guaranteed by our in-house calibration
lab to be true across its entire surface with deviations no greater than something
like half a mil. The granite block, measuring about 4 feet by 6 feet and a foot
thick, sat in the middle of the clean room. We were prohibited from having food
or drinks in there.
A guy from the Cal Lab that guaranteed the
perfection of our surface table was, to be kind, slightly pompous. He knew he held
the power to shut our operation down and get people in trouble if we were not functioning
within the prescribed guidelines, and enjoyed watching the managers spring into
action whenever he discovered a violation. I still remember the glee in his voice
when he announced, in an imperious tone of course, that our mammoth piece of granite
had suddenly gone way outside of the required flatness specification. While we pondered
the situation, Measurement Man bolted through the door to go find a manager. This
was a big deal because it meant possibly have to re-measure all the modules built
since the last surface table inspection, and scrapping any that were out of spec.
A few minutes later a team of managers returned, with our hero in the lead, to
witness the problem. He re-enacted the measurements in their presence and concluded
the same thing – our table was out of specification. The on-site Navy QA inspector
was on-hand as well. The place fell silent, and then accusations started flying.
Finally, managers left the area to decide whom to best blame for the situation.
Not believing that this could be so, one of our lead technicians investigated.
Incredibly, he discovered that the culprit was not a degraded surface table, but
cookie crumbs on the bottom of the laser measuring instrument! I kid you not. As
it turns out, the Cal Lab guy had been eating a pack of cookies just before coming
into the clean room to do the measurements, and had not washed his hands before
commencing with the procedure. We routinely washed the surface of the table down
with alcohol and a lintless cloth, so we were sure it was clean prior to his arrival.
When confronted with the situation, he humbly admitted to his sin, and even produced
a partially filled cookie pack from his pocket. Our surface table was re-measured
and passed the test. We were back in business. Thenceforth, he was known affectionately
as 'the Cookie Monster,' and he became a much more humble being, at least in our
Posted March 13, 2020