Archive for January, 2019

Spacer Shear

Johnson & Johnson in Sherman, Texas was a great place to work, and I would have dug in for the long haul except for their take on women in engineering.  It was still a time when women were tolerated but belittled at every opportunity.  Shiny tokens like I was, stuck out in every meeting, every task, every conversation.  Management as an elevated concept was supportive, but the male engineers rallied around to tell sexually explicit jokes, voiced and projected for maximum affront, a vociferous dissemination of this brand of problem politics.  Within the hearing of any presumptuous female cohort, a group would coalesce, and garden-variety harassment would begin.  There was rage—sneering, compelling, anxiety-engendering rage.  Fear filled men must needs express their vile, and I must take it—take it or leave.


In spite of some worthy achievements, I did take it, but two years at that job were enough.  I went down the street to Texas Instruments-Static Power Division, also at Sherman.  My Texas career had started at Richardson’s TI in 1964 Dallas—showing up and demanding a job, any job.  With two boys, 7 and 3, I had to get a life.  Enough with an-idealized-West-Virginia-mountain-mama-home.  My babies needed food and underpants.  Leaving Carnegie Mellon still owing for second-semester-tuition-room-and-board was an embarrassment, but I had assumed the debt, letting my dad off the hook in order to take final exams.  Now I must earn real money to repay those fines and fees.


With only one year of engineering school and no proof of grades, A’s in calculus and analytic geometry were going to do nothing for me.  Texas Instruments hired me as “Assistant Assembler B” making pennies per hour.  Right out of the chute I had to prove myself.  An improved process for dispatching my assembly station was a good start.  An after-hours built wiring board and fixture design that provided for group measuring, cutting, stripping, and soldering the wires got instant attention, a raise and a promotion.  At six weeks I was making twenty-five cents more an hour than grunt start pay.  TI was responsive.  They didn’t sneer at good ideas.  Promotion to tool designer came next, and soon.  While there, carrying Badge Number 15695, I designed all the assembly tooling on the F-111 TFX program.  That was fun!  It was exciting since the TFX (terrain following radar) was the program’s claim to fame.  We were in the storm’s eye.


Years passed.  I finished my degree working at a small Dallas company that put up with flexible hours and night school.  Opportunity as a rehire at TI’s Sherman facility and as full engineer didn’t disappoint.  My first day found a big problem that needed solving.  In those days, printed circuit boards were the thing.  They were tight-packed with most diodes mounted vertically.  That led to electrical shorts occurring between diode bodies and copper plated circuits.  Solution?  A custom injection-molded polypropylene washer spaced the diode up off the board to stop that pesky arcing.  The approach was the tried-and-true: after injection molding, the washers in their billions were automatically sliced from their sprues and stored in large trash bags waiting to be united with their designated diodes.


My first day at the Sherman facility found me stepping over bags, bags on top of bags, and bags of spacers spilling onto the floor, swept up by tricky breezes to dance away and hide or make of walkways slip-and-trip hazards. Of course the assembly line was stopped, dead and quiet.  The tried-and-true method had turned out to be a bust.  Billions of plastic one-eighth inch diameter spacers stored in plastic bags were static discharge waiting to happen.  Every attempt to recapture the spacers and present them for automatic assembly with their target diodes had failed—miserably.  The charged spacers had minds of their own and resisted handling as they took flight willy-nilly, inspired by their own electromagnetic imperatives.  My reputation as a wise-ass preceded me, and my first assignment was to fix-this-mess.


It seemed so obvious.  The spacers, hot from the injection molding machine, already had the perfect holding fixture, needing only the foresight to use it.  The sprue itself (the solidified runner of now excess material that had formed the channel to each individual washer) was every spacer’s perfect holder.  The invention invented itself.  I had only to design a tool that clamped the sprue with its twenty-four precisely located still-attached spacers while a worker inserted twenty-four diodes into the waiting washer holes, and only then pressed a button to automatically separate the twenty-four diode/spacer assemblies from the now superfluous sprue.  It worked.  The work-area was so tight that a single bar blade couldn’t access the washer/sprue attachment points, but twenty-four pointy X-acto Knife Blades, cunningly mounted, did the trick.  A solenoid provided the requisite actuation.  An inclined plane allowed the blades to rise up and slice at just the right angle.  Electrical switches with solenoids controlled “clamp” and “cut.”  Making the switches dual-actuated kept fingers safely out-of-the-way.


I was in and on my way.  Of course, they took it away from me.  They always did.  It became its own project as the little machines were fabricated, assembled, and distributed to every TI manufacturing facility.  It got to be too big for its britches.  The worst part of invention is losing control when success runs away with itself, and you get left behind saying, “Duh! What happened?”

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Crouched beyond the ragged rim of dawn, tomorrow waits

And mornings yet to be envisioned

Silently assemble.

Aeons dimly convene in that sweet silent place,

Listening, waiting, gathering purpose,

Wanting to make of future days

Some greatness, some goodness,

Even some poetry of action.


Will that dawn break glorious

Or will it slip-slide-slither in?

Will its herald be tittering bird-calls or

Fission blasts assaulting ears and minds?

Predawn is a time for questions:

What will become of this new day?

Will it distinguish its gathering self

As some great time that men will wonder at

Or will it slog into being an obscure

Past not worth remembering?


It’s all there waiting, assembling

Promising, even planning

A great and noble time

When level heads prevail,

When fisticuffs hesitate,

Think twice,

Decide to wait and see.

And hope.

It’s all there crouched as incipient possibility.


Will it explode as in the noble hymn:

Break forth O beauteous heavenly light

And usher in the morning?


Or not.


Perhaps it listens

Wondering what might come

If it takes that first grand step

Into a day of majesty.


Will it?


It must.


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