Out of Order: Attack of the Cookie Monster
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 presence.
Posted February 19, 2014