31 October 2007

Happy Helper

I got to train an assistant today. I don't know if he'll be helping me again, but I hope he will. Marcel is the new guy in blasting and shipping, and since things were slow in his department and I needed someone to put barsets together while I welded, he was given to me for four hours.

Marcel is a sweetheart. He flashes that brilliant smile of his all the time, he has a great personality, and he wants to be as good as he can possibly be at whatever he does. He shows great attention to detail and assimilates new information quickly.

This is going to seem strange, coming from someone who's obsessive-compulsive, but... I wish he were less obsessive-compulsive. I love that he wants to do a good job and get the barsets set up perfectly for me to weld, but he's so intent on making them perfect that it takes him forever to do each one. Fortunately I had a dozen barsets already welded and waiting for some extra tacking and grinding, so I worked on those while he gently tapped each blade and spacer into its proper position.

When I trained him, I was almost finished putting together a set and ready to get back to welding, so I only demonstrated enough that he got the idea and could be unsupervised until I was finished welding the set I was working on. If I get him again tomorrow, I think I'll have him watch me put together an entire set so he'll see how little he really has to do to get the job done.

30 October 2007

Try, Try Again

Joe, for all his experience and wisdom, is still only human. Humans make mistakes. Joe made the same mistake twice.

The specifics of it are a bit difficult to explain, but the gist is that when he designed blades for the rotor barsets, he shaped one end incorrectly on four blades. (That's four blades per barset, with 36 barsets on the rotor, plus two extra barsets just in case; 152 incorrect blades.) I showed him the problem, he chuckled at his mistake, and then he went back to the office to re-program the blades that needed to be replaced.

Eric, whom I affectionately call "LaserMan" in my head (because he operates the laser cutter), brought me the new blades. I broke them out, replaced the incorrect blades, and stacked a barset in a fixture. I looked at the set, shook my head, and went to the office to get Joe.

I showed him the barset with the "correct" blades. He looked at it for a moment, leaned over the table, put his head on his arm, and started laughing. "I can't believe I did that," he said, shaking his head and trying to stay lighthearted about the situation. "I'll go fix it, but the new blades might not be ready for a while. Break out the stator blades while you're waiting."

It took two or three hours for the new blades to be cut (five minutes to redesign the blades, ages in the cutting queue, and then just a few minutes under the laser), during which I nearly finished breaking out the stator blades. The new rotor blades fit properly this time, and I had a happy little geek moment with the stator blades.

There are 50 types of blades for this stator, with 38 blades of each type. Because we haven't built anything to use for sorting that many types of blades, I wrapped each type in gaff tape and wrote the blade number on the tape. There ended up being a duplicate set of one of the blade types: #42. I wrapped up both sets, wrote "42" on one, and "DON'T PANIC!" on the other.

Now where did I put my towel?

28 October 2007


On Thursday, Luc spent a few hours at the worktable helping me break out blades and build sets. It's part of the management style of our Japanese super-parent company: managers should understand and know how to do their underlings' jobs. Every time someone walked past the table behind Luc, they glanced at him, looked at me, and rolled their eyes as if to say, "oh god, he's out here again? Good luck." It's starting to annoy me.

Joe has taken to calling the company "the frog pond," and complained yesterday about our Canadian engineer's imperfect command of the English language. Never mind that English is a second or third language for all of our Canucks. They're seen as the enemy because they don't speak the way we do.* Between the accent, the vocabulary, and the conjugation of verbs, they never had a chance.

When I was assembling the rings for the next rotor and stator last week, Joe gave me a page of instructions that Christophe (the engineer) had written. With the exception of a few words, his English is very good... much, much better than my French. I brought in my French-English dictionary yesterday and spent my break writing notes for Christophe, hoping that he'll see them for what they are: an attempt to make life a little easier for everyone. Nobody knows when he'll be back in the shop (he telecommutes from Quebec most of the time), but when he visits again I'll have to remember to give him the notes.

I need to pick up some language tapes next time I'm out shopping. I want to be able to say something more useful than "le singe est sur la branche."

* Let's just ignore the fact that phrases like "he don't know no better" come out of the mouths of the same people who say that the Canadians don't speak English properly.

24 October 2007

Repeat Performance

Remember when we had to scrap an entire set because the barset angle was off? Well, this time it wasn't the barset angle, it was the cutting angle.


We also have a backlog of orders, but limited equipment, so we keep having to stop a job halfway through and start the next one because we're waiting on parts for the first one. Dan, Chuck, and I broke and built two sets and started breaking a third in about an hour and a half because we had no spacers. The good news for me is that the saw was being used to cut spacers for my conical barsets.

Joe told me that he'd have blades for the conical ready for me tomorrow, so hopefully I'll get to go back to my corner and build those barsets instead of hanging out with Dan and Chuck. Not that I mind them, I'd just rather be off on my own.

23 October 2007

Gender Equality

I went home early today. Between being a bit anemic, being exhausted, and being depressed, I felt like I was going to collapse if I didn't go home and sleep, so I found Paul and let him know that I was leaving. I wasn't really doing anything important today, since I'm waiting on blades and spacers for the stator, so it's not a big deal.

Earlier in the morning Paul took me aside and told me about a decision that had been made. There are four restrooms in the building: one ladies', one men's, and two unspecified, one of which is in the office. The office staff uses the one in the office, and everyone else uses the rest of them. Since men outnumber women at least five to one in the company and eight to one in the shop, I don't expect the "Ladies" sign to deter any of the guys.

Paul, though, seems to think that "those slobs" should learn how to read. He told me that he's going to put a lock on the door of the ladies' room and give us four women keys. I think it's a bit much, but I'm not going to object. It'll be nice to have my own restroom... the other three women are either in the office or on second shift, so I'll be the only one actually using it during the day.

I have a feeling the guys are going to be angry. Oh well.

22 October 2007

Ring My Bell

When a conical refiner comes out of the furnace and cools down, we perform two simple tests to see if it was made correctly: the eye test and the ear test.

The eye test is just a visual inspection. We make sure none of the barsets have detached from the shell, that none of the blades have popped out, and that none of the welds have cracked.

The ear test is more fun for me because of my musical background. I've always loved tapping metal things to hear the tone and clarity of their resonating frequencies, and that's just what we do with the conical. We take a small hammer or wrench and tap each barset. If every tap results in a bell-like ring, everything is good. If the sound is dull, there's something wrong.

The rotor I made last week sings.


19 October 2007

Like The Bunny With The Drum

I worked for 13 hours today.

Good night.

18 October 2007


Joe is a great guy, but he's not much of a photographer. Here's the one picture that looks okay after a ton of post-processing in GIMP.

working on a rotor

What I'm doing here is clamping the barset to the shell of the rotor. Once the barset is clamped, I weld it to the shell through those slots you see on the inside. Today I finished attaching the barsets, sealed gaps at the top and bottom, squirted brazing paste in all the right places, and crossed my fingers. It'll go in the furnace tomorrow and we'll see how it comes out on Monday.

Today's conversations with the supervisors made me feel even better. They really, really like me. They said things like, "the next time we have a meeting [with the bosses] about this project, you're going to be there. We want your input."

I told them about three weeks ago that I'd like to switch to second shift after I graduate in January, and they're fine with that, but they said they hoped I'd reconsider. They really want me on first shift so I can work with them instead of just finishing up whatever the person I train will have done earlier in the day. They even said that they could work out a special schedule for me (because my primary reason for wanting to go on second shift is so I don't have to get up before dawn... it's bad for my brain function, which is screwy as it is) so I can come in at, say, 9am and stay until 5 or 6pm. That's how much they want me on this project.

I have never felt so appreciated. It's awesome.

I promise to stop gushing soon. Really.

That's Amore

I love my job.

I love being able to work on this big, unusual part all by myself. I love having the supervisors come over and tell me I'm doing a great job. I love hearing, "wow, you've gotten a lot done today!" I love knowing that my bosses appreciate me and have confidence in me.

Joe and Paul stopped by my table yesterday on their way to a meeting, looked at my work (I might have pictures soon), and told me that I was doing really well. Then Joe turned to Paul and said, "I told you so. I told you that putting her over here was a good idea."

Have I mentioned that I love my job?

I'm coming into the home stretch on the rotor. I have two more barsets (of 24) to attach to the cone, and then I can go around the top and bottom edges to seal the ends of the barsets. After that, I think it'll be ready to be pasted and go in the furnace. And that's when I'll cross my fingers and try to remember to breathe so my head doesn't explode while I wait to see if everything holds.

Wish me luck!

16 October 2007

Coming Soon

I haven't forgotten about the blog. I've just been very busy, very tired, and utterly incapable of turning memory into prose in any sort of comprehensible way.

I use big words when I'm a zombie, apparently.

New entry coming soon, I promise.

13 October 2007

Cut and Cut Short

Now that I'm working on the conical rotor, I can have as much overtime as I want, so I worked an extra three hours yesterday and came in today. Joe and I were the only ones who showed up, so it was blissfully quiet in the shop. I got two barsets finished and another assembled before Joe came over and told me that we had to leave.

Um. What?

He'd hit forty hours on Thursday, but needed to finish some important CAD work, which was the only reason he was in today. He finished his work in a little over two hours and didn't want to hang around doing nothing and not getting paid for it (he's salaried, so he doesn't get overtime pay), so he decided to send me home and close up the shop. As compensation, he signed off on four hours of work on my time card. Two hours at home while earning time and a half? I'm happy with that.

I also managed to injure myself today. In the conical barsets, there's one blade that needs some powerful persuasion before it will fit in its spot. (Read: I need to whale on the thing with a hammer until it pops into place.) I was beating the blade with the hammer, and the hammer slipped. It hit my finger, pushing it along the edge of the blade. Ow. Ow, ow, ow. I ran to the med kit, grabbed some antiseptic spray and a bandage, ran my finger under cold water for a minute, sprayed it, and wrapped it up. It stings a little, but I'll be fine.

As a reward for a) getting a job, 2) getting a bank account, and c) surviving my life-threatening boo-boo, I stopped at Bob's on my way home and got a spiffy new Carhartt jacket. I'm going to be toasty this winter.

11 October 2007

Movin' On Up

My classmate Dan, who just started on Monday, has been working on our big, important, overdue project: the conical. He's been going too slow for management's liking, and he hasn't really been enjoying the pressure and responsibility thrust on him in his first week with the company. We talked about it during lunch today, and both admitted that we'd like to switch jobs. He wants to do my mindless, repetitive barsets, and I want to do the unusual and exciting conical. I asked him if he wanted me to talk to Joe, and he said he'd think about it.

While Chuck and I were running sheets through the Timesaver, Paul came over and asked me how things were going. I told him that I enjoy what I'm doing, but Dan seemed to be unhappy, and I wondered if we might swap tasks. He thought for a minute and then said no, we were fine where we were. Okay, no problem, I figured it was worth a shot.

Five minutes later, Joe and Paul came up to me and told me to come into the office with them. After a moment of panic, I remembered that I've been doing my job, the guys like me, and I shouldn't have anything to worry about. I was right. Joe explained that Dan wasn't moving quickly enough and had expressed his dislike for the project, so they wanted to know if I'd like to take his place.

In my head: Oh my gods! Seriously?!? Hell yes!!!

Out of my mouth: "Absolutely."

So I'm the new Special Projects person. No change in title or pay, but because this order is so overdue, I can have as much overtime as I want just to get the darned thing finished. Plus, I get to work with filler wire, which is what I love most when it comes to TIG welding. Until now, the only wire work I've been doing has been patching cracked plates for Mike, and while that's fun, it's only once or twice a day for a minute or two. This is going to be more-or-less constant for as long as it takes to get the set finished.

I am ecstatic. And exhausted. G'night.

10 October 2007

Just A Girl

Today was eventful. Melvin nearly amputated my ear, Chuck accused me of talking too much, and I was informed that welding is a man's job. Two of these things happened as a result of the really annoying job we had to do today.

Most blades will pop out of their sheets fairly easily when you apply a little torque. The blades we had today? Not so much. They were big blades in relatively thick sheets, and over half of them had a sort of tab-like thing at the end that made breaking out more than two at a time nearly impossible. (On most jobs, I can grab at least four or five blades at a time.)

Now, Chuck has been with the company for over three years, and even he was complaining to Melvin about how difficult this set was to break out. I gave up a few sheets in and asked Chuck if I could start building sets while he broke out blades, and he said that was fine. He made a few comments about "the girl" not being able to do the tough jobs, but I've gotten used to him joking around like that, so I run with it and play the "weak little girl" card when I want help with something.

Melvin came over while we were enjoying our verbal ping-pong and joined in. "I don't want to seem prejudiced," he said, "but this really is a man's job." I wasn't sure if he was serious, but I laughed as if he had told a joke and rolled my eyes as soon as he turned his back. Chuck went over and talked to him a few minutes later, and apparently Melvin said that I didn't belong in the shop; I should be in the office. Again, I'm not sure if he was serious, but Chuck and I both thought it was hilarious.

We kept complaining about how hard it was to break out this set every time Melvin walked by, and finally, when Chuck was holding the next-to-last sheet, Melvin got sick of the bitching. He grabbed the sheet and started slamming it against the edge of the table over and over again. Melvin is usually a pretty mild guy, so this violent action was totally out of character for him. The really scary thing was that when he started doing this, blades went flying everywhere, including next to my head. He explained that this was the way a former employee used to break out difficult sets. Chuck and I spent the next five minutes laughing and assuring each other that losing an ear wouldn't a big deal. Not at all. Got two of 'em for a reason, after all.

Because I've finally gotten used to Chuck's singular brand of humor, I'm comfortable playing along and tossing it back at him. He spent my first two weeks talking about how he wanted to break me out of my shell, and now that I'm not afraid to joke around with him, I think he's eating his words. He was mock-boasting about how he'd astound people with his skills if he came to my school, and I told him that my instructors would put him in his place pretty quickly. He leaned around the welding booth and said, "woman, you talk too much!" I'm taking that as a good sign.

Tomorrow is payday. Huzzah!

08 October 2007

Praise From Above

Joe keeps giving me compliments, and it makes me happy to know that he thinks so highly of me. Today we were talking about the rotor/stator set that I finished on Saturday. The stator (which I worked on) came out of the furnace just fine, but the rotor splayed open like one of those blooming onions. Joe expressed his annoyance with Dale (who worked on both the rotor and stator) because of Dale's constant complaining about the MIG welder we have. Then he said, "you, on the other hand, said that if you'd had more time with the machine, you could work around its problems, and that spoke volumes."

I love knowing that my bosses are impressed with me. It kind of makes me wish I were planning on staying in Connecticut longer than a year or two. I really like this company.

My friend Dan from school started today, and they had him doing a little bit of everything. Because he has MIG work experience, they had him repair the blooming rotor first. Then he was passed around from station to station, doing at least three or four jobs over the course of the day. He cut spacers, he ran minisegment backing plates through the Timesaver, he did... something else I hadn't seen before... he was a busy guy. I, meanwhile, spent the day working on two barset jobs. Same old stuff, same old fun.

07 October 2007

Overtime Adventure

Friday afternoon, Joe asked me if I wanted to work on Saturday. Five hours at $22.50/hr? Heck yes, I want to work on Saturday! Even though I stayed up way too late Friday night, I had a fantastic day. Melvin taught me how to do the next step in the assembly process, but I only got about three pieces into the job before Joe came over and asked me if I could do MIG.

There was a new guy, Dale, working in "Special Projects" all week, and it's obvious he was having issues. He had the supervisors over at his station every five minutes every day. At the end of the day on Friday, he was removed from that station and sent over to do TIG work with the rest of us. The special project in question was a stator for a conical refiner system. The company has only made four conical rotor/stator sets in the last two years, and three of them have failed (one rather impressively), so this new one, which is two weeks overdue, is pretty important. It needs MIG beads for added strength in certain places, and there are very few people in the shop who know how to do MIG welding.

So when Joe asked if I could do MIG, I got very excited. He led me over to the stator, showed me what needed to be done, and told me I could take all day. I ran a few practice beads on some scrap metal, fiddled with the machine a bit, and dove in. I had a few issues with the machine, so the finished work didn't come out as well as I wanted it to, but it's not going to break.

Once I'd finished that, I got to learn another new skill: pasting. We squirt copper paste on the parts and put the parts in a huge oven where the copper fuses with the steel. The paste is applied with a pneumatic nozzle at the end of a two-foot-long hose. The stator is about two feet tall and three feet wide, and weighs several hundred pounds. Pasting it involved a pallet, a big lazy susan, a forklift, and a foreman with big muscles.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I hope I get to do special projects like that more often.

05 October 2007

In Training

Luc and one of the other Canadians were in the shop yesterday. They came around to see what everyone was doing, and had some of us train them to do our jobs. I got to train Luc to do part of my job.

The man is very neat and precise. He wants things to be just so. This is normally a good quality to have. When it comes to breaking blades and building barsets, though, it greatly reduces productivity. The first time he broke out blades, Luc was very careful to keep the piles of blades straight and neatly stacked. By the third time, he'd realized that it didn't really matter, so he allowed himself to get a little more sloppy.

I admire him for his compulsive straightening, and also for his drive to completely understand and master a task. After I explained (in Franglais, a clumsy mix of French and English) how to read the print and build a set, he built and re-built that set at least four times, just to be sure he knew what he was doing.

Earlier, when he and the other Canadian were standing at the work table, I said hello to Luc and asked him how he was doing (in French). I was on my way back to my station, so I didn't stop to introduce myself to the other man. A few minutes later, though, while one of the other guys was showing Luc how to tack backs (I'll learn how to do that soon), the guy (whose name I don't know... we'll call him Canadian With No Name) came over and asked me how I knew French. We had a quick little conversation before I got back to welding and he went to watch Luc.

It was nice to exercise my French vocabulary (I want to take classes again so I don't sound like a complete fool) and explain my job in such a way that, in under 10 minutes, Luc could do it correctly. I'll be training my classmate Dan to do the same thing on Monday, and if I can do it in Franglais, plain English will be no problem.

Correction of an earlier entry: the sander we use for sharpening electrodes does, in fact, have its own exhaust/dust collection system. I'm still delegating sharpening duties to my coworkers, though.

04 October 2007


Yesterday started off as a good day. We got a lot of work done, I didn't weld long enough to get a headache, and my man came to visit me at lunch. The only frustrating bit at work was that we had a new guy "helping" us in the afternoon.

He's a nice guy. He's friendly. He tries very hard to do his job. But dear gods, he moves slower than sap. Chuck is no longer allowed to make jokes about how slowly I work, because (and I timed it to be sure) I work six times faster than the new guy. I try to be patient. I really do. I helped him and bit my tongue. But I wanted to tell him to go sit in the corner while I finished the job.

On the plus side, I got to watch Luc work for most of the day. A few days ago, Paul installed three 4x8 sheets of whiteboard-covered drywall in the maintenance area, which is a few yards away from my station. Yesterday Luc was up on a ladder putting colored tape and stickers on the board to form a grid for the new maintenance schedule chart. He was being very precise and obsessive about it, too, which made me happy.

Things fell apart once I got home. I was so tired that I nearly fell asleep at my desk, and I skipped dinner. By the time I got to school I was feeling mostly-dead (where's Miracle Max when you need him?) and didn't want to work. My friend Dan was feeling equally unmotivated, and we managed to kill about an hour and a half sitting there talking.

It wasn't until after I'd decided to at least get the slag cleaned off the hot pass I ran the other day that I realized the day students had "cleaned" the shop. My pipe had sprouted legs and walked away. Completely gone. At that point I gave up, went outside, sat down, and tried very hard not to let the fatigue and frustration get to me. I didn't burst into tears, hit things, or go home early, so I consider it a successful effort.

I don't have school next week (semester break), so I should be able to get plenty of sleep for the next week or so. Hopefully.

03 October 2007

It Was A Day

It took 19 man-hours (not counting what second shift did, which was probably 4 or 5 hours) to finish that huge set. Of my 9.5 hours, five were spent doing nothing but welding. Then I went to school, ground out a craptacular hot pass, re-ran it, and decided that helping a classmate cut the backing strip off of one of his pieces was more fun than chipping slag from my pipe.

Tomorrow, when I have some time to write, I'll tell you about my adventures at school. Sorry for the short post today... five straight hours of inhaling argon killed off a few brain cells, I think.

02 October 2007

Health and Safety

OSHA inspected the shop shortly before I was hired, and apparently we met their standards. We run a pretty clean, safe shop, so I'm not surprised. That doesn't mean I'm feeling 100% secure about my health at work, though.

Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welding uses a tungsten or tungsten-alloy electrode (about the size of the graphite in a standard pencil) to carry electricity to the metal. The industry standard in the USA is 2% thoriated tungsten. It's been used for years, it's the least expensive type of tungsten electrode on the market... and it's radioactive.

Okay, it's not stirring-your-coffee-with-a-uranium-spoon radioactive, but it does put off enough alpha particles to cause concern. When the electrode is just sitting there, it's fairly harmless because the radioactive thorium is sort of encased in the tungsten. When it's being sharpened, however, the radiation is released in the dust and can cause lung damage.

The pdf version of the MSDS for 2% thoriated tungsten electrodes seems to be missing a snippet that shows up if you view the document as html:

Several studies carried out on thoriated tungsten electrodes have shown that due to the type of radiation generated, external radiation risks during storage, welding, or disposal of residues are negligible under normal conditions of use. On the contrary, during the grinding of electrode tips there is generation of radiation of radioactive dust, with the risk of internal exposure. Consequently, it is necessary to use local exhaust ventilation to control the dust at the source, complemented by respiratory protection equipment. The risk of internal exposure during welding is considered negligible since the electrode is consumed at a very slow rate. Precautions must be taken to control any risk of exposure during the disposal of dust from the grinding divices.

We don't have local ventilation for the belt sander we sharpen our tungstens with. Edit: the sander does have its own dust-collection system. We don't take any special precautions when disposing of the dust... it goes in the trash with everything else. I don't think any of the guys in the shop even realize that they're dealing with radioactive material. It's just another piece of metal to them.

Welding is dangerous. If I hadn't accepted that fact, I wouldn't be in this trade. I know I'm going to get burnt and electrocuted, I know my lungs will never be clean again, and I'm not too worried about that. On the other hand, with so many other types of (non-radioactive) tungsten electrodes on the market, it seems like an unnecessary risk to continue using thoriated tungsten. It's been banned or strictly regulated in the rest of the world, but we continue to use it as if it were completely harmless.

I always get Chuck to sharpen my electrodes for me.

01 October 2007


The health and safety entry is coming, I promise. I just wanted to tell you about today while my wrists are still aching.

Chuck and I finished welding a set from yesterday in about an hour and a half. Then we broke, built, spaced, and welded an itty bitty set (still 96 pieces, but only 4 types of blades per piece, and they were only 4" long) in about four hours. Then... it happened. Our priority board got a new hot job. Our string of 4-inchers was broken by a mammoth set that we barely made a dent in before quitting time.

The set (96 pieces, as usual) is almost 11 inches long and has 12 types of blades.


When sets have that many types of blades, the blades are nearly impossible to tell apart without fine scrutiny. It will probably take most of tomorrow for us to finish breaking out the blades, never mind build the sets.

Ow. Ow, ow, ow.