30 September 2007

Save Time

Our section of the shop has three Timesavers. A Timesaver is a huge belt sander with a conveyor belt. Slap your material on the conveyor, it gets pulled under the sanding belt, and then gently spit out the other side. Of our three, we only use two on a regular basis: the BIG ONE (for sheets) and the little one (for finished sets). Usually when we tell someone that there's a problem with the Timesaver, we mean the BIG ONE.

When I say BIG, I mean BIG. It's an older, bigger, non-computerized version of the widebelt model, and it's a good seven or eight feet tall. And it's finnicky. It needs to be cleaned (sprayed with a water-lubricant mixture) before and after every job because the steel dust and the lubricant/rust-inhibitor form sticky globs that block some of the parts from moving the way they're supposed to. When the (manual, not motorized) lift is blocked by gunk, it won't bring the conveyor belt close enough to the sanding belt, so the sheets won't come out the correct thickness.

Most of the guys don't bother cleaning the machine because it takes five minutes and needs to be done thoroughly. As a result, the gunk builds up, the lift stops working, and we have to go find Paul. This does not make Paul happy. In fact, it makes Paul really, really angry. He doesn't mind doing routine maintenance, but when it's a chronic issue that could be solved by the guys doing what they're supposed to do, he starts yelling and cursing.

It got so bad a few days ago that Paul started shouting at Melvin, telling him that he had to make sure the guys rinsed out the machine, and that if they didn't, he should fire them. That's how big an issue this has become. It's dying down, though. The guys clean the machine just enough for it to mostly work properly, and nobody calls Paul when they have problems. They just shrug and move on. It saves time.

Coming next: Health and Safety

29 September 2007

Little Bitty Pretty One

For over a week now we've been doing 8" barsets. Because they're so long, they need four beads across the back instead of three, and they're about an inch wider than the smaller sets. This means that they take longer to weld, so a 96-piece job takes Chuck and me a full day to complete.

Yesterday we caught a break. Finally. Two 4.5" jobs in a row. I love the short sets because they're much quicker... same number of pieces (96), but fewer blades, fewer spacers, and fewer welds. I broke out most of the blades for the first job and all of the blades for the second job while Chuck was cutting spacers, and between us we blazed through the first job in 5.5 hours and got the second job almost half-finished before second shift took over.

The only bad thing about the short sets is that they're a little too short. Because of the way the clamping station is set up, the little sets have to be off-center in the vise, which means that one edge is protruding from the side of the vise, but the other edge is set in a little bit. That makes it nigh impossible to weld both of the edges right-handed without unclamping the piece after doing most of the welds and then re-clamping for that last bead.

Fortunately, one of the skills I was forced to learn in my TIG training at Baran is ambidexterity. So instead of wasting time unclamping and re-clamping, I just do that last weld left-handed. My left-hand welds tend to be better than my right-hand welds, so I'm not sacrificing quality, just comfort. And even that gets better after a few dozen welds.

On a "hey, cool!" note, I just found the patent information for what we make. Papermaking refiner plates and method of manufacture at freepatentsonline.com.

Coming next: Save Time

28 September 2007


I lied. I'm not going to write about how we somehow manage to get work done when half the bloody shop calls out on the same day. Why? Because that's pretty much all there is to it. People aren't there, we shift around and do our jobs plus their jobs, and one way or another, stuff is accomplished. Not really worthy of a full entry, is it?

So instead I'll tell you about something that happened before I was hired.

Part of the post-buyout restructuring of our happy little company was getting newer/better office equipment, including computers. From what I hear, there were a bunch (3? 6? The stories differ.) of brand new Dell computers, still in the boxes, sitting in the office, waiting for desk space to be cleared. The next day, they weren't there anymore. Not in the office, not in the shop, not anywhere in the building.

Several thousand dollars of brand-spanking-new, easily-fenced, complete-with-authentic-Windows-serial-keys personal computing technology walked out the door. Management was, of course, mighty upset. Police detectives were called in, and nearly everybody was questioned. Not questioned was the disgruntled man who had just been handed his walking papers.

The crime still hasn't been solved, people are still being questioned and re-questioned, threats of polygraph tests abound, and security cameras have been installed at all of the doors. It seems like all of the employees are sure Disgruntled Guy did it, but without proof, there's nothing to be done about it.

This is why I don't leave anything at work. You never know what's going to sprout legs and wander off.

Coming next: Little Bitty Pretty One

27 September 2007

The Chopping Block

For the most part, all of the jobs that come through my station are 96-piece jobs. Each job takes between 10 and 16 man-hours to complete. After putting in all of that work, it really sucks to watch the foreman toss all 96 pieces in the dumpster.

It wasn't our fault.

When we assemble barsets, the blades and spacers are offset by a specific angle. That angle turns rectangles into parallelograms and corresponds with the angle of the fixtures the barsets have to fit into. The angle is marked on the print we work from, and at the clamping station we have dozens of angle templates so we can arrange the blades properly.

Chuck and I had finished our part of the job and moved onto the next job when Melvin started cutting sets and trying to fit them into the fixture. They... didn't fit. The angle was wrong. "This is bad," said Melvin. "This is really bad." He grabbed the print, hunted through the angle templates for the one that matched the print, set up the clamping station for that angle, and checked a finished set. The angle was correct. The number on the print matched the number on the template, which matched the angle of the sets we'd made.

The good news: it really wasn't our fault. *whew*

The bad news: if it wasn't us, it must have been the print. Prints are prepared by Miss Priss, who refused to believe that the error was hers. She visited us, as did Paul, Joe, and Luc. I think in the end they decided it was the angle template that was wrong, so they scrapped the one we'd used and cut a new one. Then we had to re-do the job. A day (and a lot of material) wasted.

Word in the shop is that Miss Priss's job is in the paper already.

Coming next: Short-Staffed

Efficiency Eavesdropping

About 20 feet from the worktable where I break blades and build sets is a little table next to a wall covered with charts and lists about productivity and efficiency. That table is where the supervisors (Paul and Joe), foremen (Melvin and Mike), and a girl I don't know much about (I call her "Miss Priss" in my head because she looks very stuck-up) have their daily meeting with Luc. Occasionally smaller meetings/conversations go on there, and if most of the machines are off and I'm at the worktable, I can sort of hear what's being said.

Yesterday Luc and Joe spent fifteen minutes talking about the division of labor in the shop, and how best to apply the skills of our current welders/assemblers and the one(s) starting in the next few weeks. I got the impression that Joe was trying to get Luc to approve hiring three or four more people so each person could focus on one task instead of, for example, the five tasks I do. I also got the impression that Luc was hesitant to agree, doing mental math to see whether the income from increased productivity would balance out the wages of three or four more employees.

Luc is in a difficult position. He's seen as the enemy, both because his English isn't flawless and because his job is to rock the boat. The supervisors are trying to work with him, but I can tell that they get frustrated when he doesn't agree with them. Paul and Joe have been at this job for a long time, they know each stop on our little assembly line, they can do our jobs, they know what each employee's skills are, and... Luc doesn't. He looks at numbers. He makes decisions for the company based on those numbers. It remains to be seen whether his decisions turn out to be good ones.

Coming Next: The Chopping Block

26 September 2007

The Good, The Bad, and The Dreamy

Now that I've told you about Chuck (who was out today, thank the gods), let me tell you about three other personalities I interact with on a daily basis.

The Good: Paul is my supervisor, and a pretty cool guy. He was the one who told me during my interview that, even though the rest of my references weren't welding-related, the name of my instructor (who used to work here and was very well-liked) was more than enough. In addition to being in charge of the shop, he's also in charge of maintenance. It's that part of his job that has the potential to make him angry (our big Timesaver has been more of a Timewaster lately), but he likes me enough that I can always get a smile out of him.

The Bad: Larry is a suit. I'm not sure what his official title is, but he wanders through the shop every other day or so. He falls into the annoying-doddering-old-fool category, and I try not to make eye contact in the hope that he'll keep walking and not stop to talk to me. I had the misfortune of having to fill out tax and confidentiality forms with him on my first day, and I think I began to hate him in the first two minutes.

The Dreamy: Luc is another suit, but zounds, he looks good in a suit. He's our efficiency expert, sent by the parent company's Quebec office. He speaks just enough English to tell people what to do, but just little enough that most of the guys bitch about how nobody can understand him. I made his day during my interview when I spoke to him in French, and I love hearing him talk, no matter what language he's using. It's lovely to have a tall, handsome Canadian say "bonjour" to me every morning.

There are more good people in the shop than bad ones, so I'm happy. Tomorrow I get my first paycheck (for 8 days' work), try not to fall asleep while welding, go home, take a shower, watch Samoa beat the USA at rugby, and then get a full night's sleep for the first time in three days.

Coming Next: Efficiency Eavesdropping

25 September 2007

All-Leather Cow Interior

Y'know that Denis Leary song? I've decided that it's the new theme song for one of the guys at work. We'll call him Chuck, because that's his name. For about the first week, I was so annoyed by him that I considered going to management and asking to work with someone else. Now that it's been nearly two weeks, I've learned to let most of what he says go in one ear and out the other. Having a slight hearing problem makes this easier.

He's not a mean-spirited guy. He jokes around a lot, but it takes a while to learn when he's joking and when he's being serious. He sees it as his duty to gently haze all of the new-hires. One of the other guys in the shop heard Chuck playfully picking on me for not working as quickly as he does and said, "well, it's nice to know you don't play favorites, Chuck. You give everybody the same hard time."

At first I thought Chuck was sexist. When he wasn't picking on me for being slow, he was picking in me for being a girl. Statements like "men are never wrong" and "women slow everything down" come out of his mouth on a regular basis. It took a few days for me to realize that he wasn't serious, he was just trying to get a reaction out of me. He's as big a fan of Equal Opportunity as your average liberal, and got angry at some guys who work for his uncle's construction company because they refused to work with the two women on the crew. So... not sexist, just pushing those buttons to see what I'll do.

He's actually turning out to be a pretty nice guy. He has some warped ideas, though. His ideas about alcohol amuse and worry me at the same time. Chuck is known for drinking a lot on the weekends. A lot. He boasts about going through a 30-pack of beer in an evening. One day when he was going on about the wonders of beer, I shook my head and told him that his liver was in trouble if he kept drinking like that. He protested that his liver was fine. After all, he said, beer is good for your liver! It flushes everything out! He'd had 13 beers in three hours the night before, and he felt fine, so there's nothing wrong.

That was the moment when I decided that smiling and nodding is the best way to deal with him when I disagree with him. It keeps my blood pressure out of the red zone and my body in the vertical position. (If I roll my eyes too much, I get dizzy and fall over.)

Even though I'm getting used to him, I still wish I could work with someone else. Chuck is the person I work with all day, every day, and I would love a change of scenery. His green plaid "two-baby belly" (as one of the second shifters puts it) is something I'd be happy not to see every day.

Coming next: The Good, The Bad, and The Dreamy

24 September 2007

People Are People

Y'know how airlines over-book flights, assuming some people won't show up? The company I work for has been over-hiring welders, assuming some people will quit right away. And that's just what happened last week.

They hired an old-timer (whose name I forgot about 12 seconds after he introduced himself to me) and he started last Monday. He worked hard and was very friendly. He and I are from the same town, so we chatted about schoolteachers we'd both had. Having that kind of conversation with someone who's easily 20 years my senior was weird, let me tell you.

On Friday he seemed upset. About three hours into the shift, he went to our foreman and asked if welding the same type of part over and over again was all he was going to do. The foreman said yes, and the guy packed up his stuff and walked out.

I was surprised. It's obvious when you walk through the shop that it's a production shop. This guy looked like he'd been welding for a long time, so he should have known what the deal was before he accepted the job. My guess is that he didn't think the pay suited the workload. Most of the new-hires are starting in the $13-$15/hr range, and churning out a LOT of pieces. I weld about fifty pieces an hour, but they're the smallest components of what we make, so nobody else has that high a piece-per-hour ratio.

If you don't want mind-numbing, repetitive work, this job is not for you. Fortunately, this is exactly the sort of work I like, so as long as the lack of sleep doesn't kill me before I graduate, I'm keeping the job.

Coming next: All-Leather Cow Interior

23 September 2007

Breaks In the Monotony, Cracks In the Pieces

Occasionally I get a break from my production work, and I get to do something fun. The foreman of the other half of the shop (Mike) and one of the supervisors (Joe) discovered cracks in four of the fan-shaped things (I have no idea what they're called) in the space of two days, and they've come to me for patch jobs. The first time Mike and Joe came to me, I think it was just because I was closest to the entrance to their part of the shop and happened to be welding at the time.

Friday, though, Joe brought in a part while I was over at the work table breaking blades. He called me over while he walked to my welding station to put the part down. One of the other guys was at my station tacking something, and when he saw Joe, he volunteered to stop what he was doing and patch the piece. Joe said, "no, I'll wait," and smiled at me. I made the repair and got his nod of approval, so apparently I'm now the repair girl.

I'm really proud of the quality of my patch welds. When welding stainless steel, the ideal bead color is yellow-gold. That means that the heat and speed are balanced, so the weld is solid. Once I reminded myself how to weld with wire (instead of just fusing, which is what I do the rest of the time), my welds came out yellow-gold. That made my day.

I love doing repairs because the job requires skill, unlike most of the work I do. One of the pieces I worked on had been patched before by someone else, who, to quote Joe, had done "a piss-poor job" of it. It's nice to know that, for this task, I'm more skilled than some of the guys who have been there for a while. I hope it means that I'll get to do more repairs and maybe move onto more interesting parts of the production line when they hire more new people. (One will start in a week and a half; a classmate of mine.)

Coming next: People Are People

22 September 2007

What I Do, In A Specific Sort of Way

Once you know how to weld, you can build just about anything made of metal. Welders make and repair buildings, machinery, pipelines, cars, planes, ships, submarines, spaceships, boilers, drilling rigs, bridges, and more. We can even work under water, if we're so inclined (I am most definitely not), though most of us stay on dry land. I've run into a lot of welders who refuse to do what I do, which is work in a production shop. They can't stand the monotony. And that's fine. To each his own, and all that. But I like my job. This is what I do:

This is the company I work for, and the bunches of blades in those fan-shaped things are what I make. Sheet steel comes into the building and goes to our massive (about 20' square) laser cutter. It mostly-cuts the blades for each job, and then the blades come to my area, Barset Assembly. My coworker and I run the sheets through a Timesaver to get the burrs from the cutting process off. Then we break the blades out of the sheets, arrange them by type (some sets have five types of blades, others have 10 or more), and "build" the sets by assembling the blades in the correct order. We put spacers between the blades and then put each barset in a clamp. I put on my welding helmet and fuse three to five lines across the back of the barset (depending on the set's size) and one line along each cross-section edge. The sets get run through another Timesaver to make sure everything's even, and then they go on to the next step in the process... which I don't watch because I'm too busy building more sets.

It's mindless work, for the most part, and that's one of the things I like about it. I can zone out a bit and not screw anything up, and the counting I have to do when building sets makes my obsessive-compulsive side happy. The worst part of my job is having to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning. I haven't had to do that on a regular basis since basic training, and I only lasted about a week there, so it wasn't regular... it was more like a really bad vacation. On the plus side, I get out of work at 3:15, so I have plenty of time to do errands and enjoy the daylight. School days suck, though. Get up at 5, get to work at 7, get out of work at 3:15, go home and make/eat dinner, get to school just before 6, and get home at 10:30. It's three days a week, it's exhausting, and I have about four more months of it.

I can do this. The education is worth it, the paycheck is worth it, and proving my pessimistic, unsupportive mother wrong is worth it, too.

Coming next: Breaks In the Monotony, Cracks In the Pieces

21 September 2007

How It Began

My adult life has gone like this:

I tried college. It didn't work.
I tried college again. It didn't work.
I tried working in retail. It didn't work.
I tried enlisting in the Air Force. It didn't work.
I tried committing suicide. It didn't work.
I started welding school. It worked.

I'm a creative person. I like working with my hands, building things, repairing things, and seeing tangible results of my work. I am not cube farm material. I like getting my hands dirty. I've spent years looking for the right skills... ones that will pay the bills while allowing me to be artistic. Welding fits. The pay is good, the work is fun, and I can use my skills to make art on the side.

I began the welding program at Baran Institute of Technology in October of 2006, intending to finish in one year by taking classes full-time. Nine months in, I decided to switch to part-time, delaying my graduation until January of 2008. Once I had all of this free time, I started looking for jobs. I'm confident in my skills in school, where I know what everyone else is doing, but not knowing how my skills measured up in the "real" world scared me. I procrastinated. A lot.

Two weeks ago, I finally applied for a job at a company one of my teachers used to work for. Their decision was quick, and I started last Wednesday. It took me a few days to get into the swing of things, but now I'm comfortable and confident in my abilities. I like my work, I like most of my coworkers (more on that later), and in spite of getting very little sleep, life is good.

Coming next: What I Do, In A Specific Sort of Way.

Hello, world!

Hiya! I'm Lilith, crazy chick who does a little bit of everything, and I just got a job as a TIG welder. I don't want to clutter my knitting blog with tales of work, so I'm putting all of the welding drama here. Enjoy your stay, and don't stare directly into the light.