longer version of this story was posted a few years ago as one of my
articles, 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 email
it to me for consideration.
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
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.
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.
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 presence.
Posted February 19, 2014