Friday, June 16, 2017

The Alleged Mexican Expedition: Prelude

  Tristan messaged me in mid-August. He and I had recently met during a mountaineering class in Washington, in which we climbed Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier together. He was inviting me to climb Pico de Orizaba in December. I was sitting in the passenger seat of Carlson’s car, on our way to pick up materials from my office. We were in the middle of building a giant “flying” selfie stick for the Red Bull Flugtag, which, at that point, was in five days. I was vaguely familiar with Pico de Orizaba, perhaps because Tristan mentioned it on Facebook and I subsequently googled it. At roughly 18,500 feet, Pico de Orizaba has several peak-bagging accolades: tallest peak in Mexico; tallest volcano in North America; and overall third tallest peak in North America. Tristan piqued my interest when he mentioned he was going unguided. We agreed to talk the following week, as I was currently preoccupied with being hurled off a 24-foot-tall pier into the Charles River on a home-made contraption which stood zero chance of flying (largely due to its lack of wings, but also because the physics of the situation were generally unfavorable).

  As the dust settled post-Flugtag, I found myself thinking about Pico de Orizaba more. The prospect was appealing, but the logistics of taking more time off were difficult. Less than two weeks later, however, I left my job and committed to the Mexico trip. I was, after all, trying to say yes to more interesting opportunities.

  Tristan roped in Craig, a long-time friend of his, and the three of us made some cursory plans. Sometime around Christmas, we’d head to Mexico. The trip would begin with an acclimatization hike on Sierra Negra, followed by a summit attempt on Pico de Orizaba, and conclude with a climb of Iztaccihuatl. We talked a few more times, and then I set about making other plans. September quickly rolled by. I booked a flight to Australia, a return flight from New Zealand, and then some flights to and from Mexico. October was consumed by engineering contract work to pay the bills, and soon enough, it was November.

  Since I worked all of October (despite allegedly taking a year off), I didn’t put much planning into my trips. It was my last night in Boston, and I stayed late for a company Halloween party. After all, who could refuse free Thai food and an opportunity to watch an industrial robot arm mill a bust of the CEO into a pumpkin? Eventually I left and spent the whole night winterizing my car and packing for the next two months. It finally came time to catch my 6 am train to New York. I hauled one hundred pounds of mountaineering, hiking, and camping gear (plus some other essentials) for the one mile walk to South Station and boarded a train, saying goodbye to Boston for the next ten weeks.

  The next six weeks were an experience worth recounting separately. To summarize though: minimally planned solo travel to unfamiliar countries leaves little time for additional planning.

     While waiting to board my seventh flight of the trip, from Auckland to Honolulu, I finally started feeling ill. Honestly, I was surprised it took so long, since I had spent 36 hours in tiny tubes of recirculating air over the previous five weeks, with cumulatively a thousand or two strangers, and then subjected my body to mentally and physically exhausting hikes, road trips, and logistical headaches. In preparation for the nine-hour red-eye ahead, I filled up my water bottles and relaxed so I could hopefully sleep away the sick. Unfortunately, this flight, like the six before it, included a screaming baby.

  I arrived in Hawaii, got through customs, and then called a very expensive cab (I forgot the currency in Hawaii is USD, not NZD) in an attempt to enjoy Honolulu for a few hours before catching a ten-hour flight to New York. Dressed for a cool Kiwi spring day, I was ill-prepared for my accidental nap in a sunny park by the beach. I awoke uncomfortably warm and remarkably tired, then began making my way back to the airport.

  The city bus was late, likely because of the Honolulu Marathon, and excessively air-conditioned. I spent the next thirty minutes shivering, cursing the driver’s climate preferences under my breath. After exiting the bus into 85F weather and continuing to shiver, I became aware that my slight cold, poor attire, and fatigued state probably contributed to a mild case of heat exhaustion. The next ten hours were spent shivering under a blanket, listening to yet another baby screaming, and hoping I’d feel ok before going to Mexico the following week.

  New York greeted me with a strangely welcoming cold, rainy December day. I made my way from JFK to New Jersey to visit family for a few days before departing again. I had exactly one week in the US, so I had exactly one week to figure out a Mexico game plan. Not much had been decided while I was away, so transportation and accommodations were completely up in the air. This was also our first unguided glaciated peak, so all the mountain-specific logistics needed to be resolved. We had to figure out who was bringing what gear; the route needed to be decided, plotted, and uploaded to GPS; our food and water strategy needed to be resolved; and we needed to figure out where to get camp fuel and maps on location. All of these unknowns, combined with family-and-friends time, meant I had very little time to rest and fight off whatever cold was ailing me.

  I spent the next week frantically buying more mountaineering gear, most of which turned out to be unnecessary. Of course, I had no way of knowing that, as I had done very little research on the specifics of our route. Perhaps the most important item, though, was a four-season tent which could house the three of us, seeing as all our accommodations were uncertain. We anticipated camping frequently, often at elevation, and probably on snow. Naturally, overnight shipping took three days and failed to be delivered. As always, UPS told me I could pick the tent up on Saturday at their distribution center. Sure enough, the employee at the distribution center told me I would have to wait until Monday, because the tent was on a truck and would require the whole crew to access. Unfortunately, I was going to be in Mexico on Monday. Since we had no alternative plan for shelter, my father and I drove an hour to New York City, where I picked up an equivalent tent while he circled the block.

  Sunday, my last full day in the US, quickly snuck up on me. I had spent all week reading gear reviews and guidebooks. Tristan, Craig, and I had decided to tackle some of the uncertainty by maintaining flexibility. We would rent a car and plan to spend most of our time camping instead of looking for hotels. Most sources told us driving in Mexico would be hell, but it seemed inter-city buses would require too much planning to be practical, particularly given our collective inability to speak any Spanish. I rented a car for remarkably little money and booked one night at a hotel in Mexico City (since I was arriving the day before Tristan and Craig).

  Shortly afterwards, I ate dinner, packed my gear, and headed back to JFK. My flight was first thing in the morning, so transit schedules forced me to arrive the night before. On the train to New York, I bought some mountaineering-friendly travel insurance and frantically booked hotels from my phone. Then I started reading another guidebook. Quickly realizing it was the most useful yet, I proceeded to expend my remaining energy on absorbing all the information within. After waiting a few hours for the ticketing counters to open, I got my boarding pass, waited for security to open, and ventured to my gate. My nerves had been bad all week, but at this point, they were making me nauseous. I was by myself, traveling to a country whose language I did not speak, without much of a plan. I was also sleep deprived and just getting over a cold. The clock had run out though, and there wasn’t much more preparation I could do. I got on the plane, listened to the ninth screaming baby for a few hours, and hoped for the best. The Alleged Mexican Expedition had begun.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Hat Mike's Council on Aging

I’ve been telling this story over and over lately, so perhaps it’s time to put it in writing. Honestly, this should have been done ages ago, but halfway through seems as good a time as any. At least this way I can ~record-scratch~ “You’re-probably-wondering-how-I-got-here” this situation.
I quit my job on September 1st last year. With an uncharacteristic use of foresight, I had reapplied to grad school some months earlier, thinking I’d hedge my bets in case the startup didn’t pan out. The hedging quickly felt irrelevant, so when decision time rolled around, I deferred my admission for a year. Really, that was just a way to kick the can down the road in my typical fashion. The startup had a lot of promise and I didn’t plan on leaving for several more years.
A few months later, when I realized I had been sitting on a lot of work-related anxiety and wanted to get out to do something else, I quit. It was rather sudden and unfolded over the course of a few days. One or two nights prior to the date of departure, I had a heart-to-heart with a friend who made me realize that leaving my job could be an opportunity, and not necessarily a failure. The prospect of doing anything but another job seemed unfathomable to me. The more I thought about it though, the more rational it seemed. With no additional effort on my part, I would be starting grad school one year later. Nobody would demand anything of me for the next year unless I wanted it. I had some savings. When else would I get such an opportunity?
In truth, I had been dreaming of such an opportunity without knowing it. Having recently become obsessed with mountaineering, I was constantly thinking about climbs I wanted to go on and scheming about finding the time to actually do them. This was the perfect set of circumstances to stop scheming and start doing.
Fast forward a few months, and the scheming-to-doing ratio has been all over the place. September was spent sorting out some neglected aspects of my life and October building up some financial reserves through engineering contract work. November through mid-January were some of the crazier months, taking me through Australia and New Zealand (with some short stops in China, the Philippines, and Hawaii), followed by a mountaineering adventure in Mexico. Those are stories worth telling another time.
Since then, however, scheming has been my modus operandi. From the start of this year-off, the plan has been to move into a van and travel the country, climbing mountains and visiting friends before heading to Europe for the summer. Yet, for reasons I cannot fully explain, January and February flew by with little substantial action. I picked up rock climbing in an attempt to round out as an alpinist, tried my hand at ice climbing and cross country skiing, saw friends, ran errands, experimented with cooking Indian food, and all sorts of other mildly fulfilling pursuits. It was a relaxing two months, which I probably needed, but I was getting more anxious with each passing day. My crazy plans were slowly becoming fantasy again.
At the end of February, I heeded some solid advice: “Don’t think. Just do.” I decided that all my worries about money and uncertainty needed to take a back seat to my worries of squandering an opportunity to fulfill a fantasy, and I started aggressively hunting for a van to turn into a home. Several hours of craigslisting, phone calls, and rental-car-driving-around-New-England later, I had seen a wide spectrum of potential vans: VW campers, Toyota-pickup based RVs, work vans, former Fox and ABC news vans, wheelchair vans, and even government research vehicles. Each vehicle seemed to have a more ridiculous story than the last. One vehicle stood out, though, and I knew when I saw it that I would be purchasing it. That vehicle was a 2006 Ford E350 Super Duty Cutaway Van, built out as a wheelchair bus for the Stoughton Council on Aging. After a call on February 28th, I decided to put down a deposit so the bus wouldn’t sell while I sorted out insurance and other routine vehicle purchasing bureaucracy. I quickly learned there is nothing routine about this vehicle.
The headaches began when phone calls to every major insurance company I knew revealed that regular private passenger insurance does not work for buses in Massachusetts. I spent hours on hold with the RMV, trying multiple avenues to get some clarity on the situation. I began calling local insurance brokers who could access specialty insurers. I quickly learned that insurance companies don’t like to sell insurance when they know you won’t hold it for more than a year, and brokers won’t get their commissions if you sell the vehicle too soon. I refined my telephone pitch with every step, after several forms of rejection.
“I don’t know… I’m just not interested. It’s too complicated,” said one insurance broker.
I simplified things for the next one.
Even still, nobody seemed to be able to find an insurance company that would write a policy. I called the people who inspect school buses for the state (incidentally, they don’t get very many calls and the phone rang about three dozen times before someone picked up), the titles department, the safety and compliance people, and many others to see if I could get the vehicle to be considered an RV instead of bus prior to the conversion. Not a chance. So I hunted for bus insurance, and after several redirects, reached one of three people who insure buses in Massachusetts.
“You’ve got yourself a catch-22. I can’t help you,” he said.
So after a week of no progress, I decided to do the rational thing: buy the bus anyway. I laundered some money through a friend, showed up with the remaining $3k in cash at the tractor trailer/equipment dealer, worked out a temporary storage agreement, and began working on Plan B.
(At this point, I made a quick trip to the RMV to have the title transferred into my name. I asked the person at the counter for clarification about having the vehicle re-titled once the conversion is complete, and she asked me to meet her at counter two. We walked around the entire floor on opposite sides of the counter and met again at counter two, where a familiar face was sitting, helping another individual. Pam, the familiar face, was very engaged with this gentleman, until her coworker approached her and asked, “Do you need to have a vehicle retitled after it is converted to an RV?”
Pam slowly peered around the man at her counter. Upon seeing me, her shoulders slumped and she exclaimed, “Ugh, not you again!”
Frankly, becoming a regular at the RMV was the least of my worries.)
Driving the bus without insurance and consequently no registration or license plates was not an option. I needed to find a place to store the bus for the duration of the conversion process. A week-and-a-half later, I managed to work out an agreement with a friend. After temporarily remobilizing my other stupid-vehicle-purchase (an old RX-7, which I vehemently insist was a fantastic purchase), we stashed my car at his office and freed up space for the conversion to happen. A few phone calls later, the people who sold me the bus coordinated a tow-truck delivery. They seemed amused by the project and offered to do more leg work than they usually would, which certainly saved me effort and probably money. Three weeks after putting down the deposit, my bus finally arrived.

I greeted the bus with enthusiasm, followed by a huge kick of doubt and uncertainty about my decision-making abilities. I probably bit off more than I can chew. Historically, though, the memories I am fondest of have all originated with a similar disregard for what is reasonable. Why should this time be any different?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Allen Key Entity Extraction I: Mazak the Misaligned

(Disclaimer: this gets heavy on technical stuff. If you have zero interest in machines, you should probably stop reading now. Part 2 and/or 3 will have more general entertainment. If you like machines, keep reading. You might learn something.)

     It's been a while since I've posted anything. That's largely because grad school life doesn't lend itself to many interesting stories (at least not my grad school life). I spend about half my time sleeping, commuting, eating, and generally taking care of myself. The other half of my time is split between class, research, errands, dicking around, and a little side project I'm working on for fun with these guys: Basically, the most exciting thing that happens to me on a regular basis is recognizing total strangers on the T during my morning commute.

     Incidentally, and not totally unrelated to the bore-factor of my life, research can move really slowly sometimes. For the last three months in particular, not much has been accomplished in lab on my part. There's a few reasons for this:
  1. IAP. Why would I work that hard when I'm used to taking all of January (for the last four years) to do absolutely nothing?
  2. Up until recently, I didn't have a well-defined project. It's hard to move forward on a project when you don't... really... have... a project?
  3. The lathe I need to make some critical components for my test fixture has been pretty massively misaligned for ages
     As it turns out, I am the responsible lab member for maintenance of the lathe. I was given this job after I voluntarily started performing repairs on the machine last semester. I had worked in this lab my junior year, and had spent a lot of time with the machine already. So much so that people would joke I was having an affair with "Billy Mazak" (Mazak being the brand of lathe). Anyway, my penchant for machining and restoration of old broken equipment (see: my cars) has led me to be quite involved with the Mazak these last few months. It's a very capable machine: the Mazak Super Quick Turn-15MS, or Billy for short, is a production style machine, similar to this one: The major difference is that our Mazak is from 1993, so it's not quite that nice. But it does have a 15 kW primary spindle, and the milling option and secondary spindle (critically, as you'll come to learn, no controllable y-axis).

     Since the Mazak is from 1993, and is in a research lab staffed primarily by graduate students, it's seen a fair number of collisions and misuses in the last 20 years. So it's not miracle that a few things are misaligned and out of calibration. I started off with the simple things in December. The tool eye (a super precise touch sensor, basically), used for touching off tools so the machine knows their position relative to the parts, was misaligned. The tool eye swings out on a little motorized arm like the one shown below.

     Once the arm is out, the operator touches the tool to two of the four faces of the tool eye (one X face, one Z face. The +Z face is being used below). This lets the machine know where things are. It's similar to when you turn a part on a manual lathe, and you measure the diameter of a test cut to calibrate your tools. Except this is more precise (0.001 mm precise), repeatable, and automated.

     The tool eye needs to be aligned and calibrated. If it is slightly rotated and the sensor faces aren't normal to the axes they're measuring in, things get inconsistent. Imagine your +Z face is slightly off-normal. If you move your tool in X, it will move further or closer to your +Z face, and your measurements will vary. The tool eye also needs to be clean. The little holes at the base are actually air nozzles that keeps dirt and grime from landing on the ground surfaces of the eye. After those two criteria are met, some test cuts are made, parts are measured, and then the tool eye position has to be derived and set as a software parameter. Seemed like a good place to start.

     I grabbed some manuals and read up on the procedure. Basically, a calibration block, consisting of two ground flat faces about an inch apart, is bolted to the +Z side of the tool eye, and a dial indicator (this one in particular) is mounted to the turret (the part with all the tools that rotates into place), The turret is moved in X, and the difference in Z between the two edges of the calibration block is measured. The four machine screws holding the tool eye down are loosened, and then snugged up. Then, using a hammer and punch on the back side of the calibration block, small impacts are used to rotate the tool eye into place. Yes. This is the official, published procedure. If you are unaware, precision machine alignment is often a matter of hammering something that's really hard to move into place, one micron at a time. The trick is having precise measurement equipment.

     So I did this alignment. As far as the indicator read, the two edges of the block were in plane. The indicator is guaranteed 3 micron accuracy and has a resolution of 1 micron. The process really wasn't that bad (not nearly as bad as aligning the head on a Bridgeport, at least). So I started getting confident. When I got back from winter break in January, I decided it was time to align the main spindle. This is where things started getting frustrating.

     The main spindle's axis of rotation on a lathe has to be parallel to the Z axis of the carriage/turret. If this isn't the case, an undesired taper will be introduced to your parts (e.g. if you turn a bar of constant diameter, one end of it will be larger than the other). So I attempted to measure this runout. My first attempt involved putting a large drill rod in the spindle and moving a dial indicator axially along its surface. Seeing that the runout was large, I pulled off the spindle covers. This turned into a bit of production.

     The Mazak is an enclosed CNC. It is designed to run unattended on a factory floor, and at fairly high speeds. The machinery is enclosed by thick steel panels designed to keep operators safe from runaway bricks of steel, moving parts, flood coolant, and high voltage. However, to get at the headstock for alignment, these panels need to be removed. Our machine is buried in the back corner of our shop, on the first floor of a 103 year old academic building. We have way too much equipment, and it gets a bit cramped back there. Seeing as nobody had needed to access this part of the machine in recent years, a fair amount of stuff had accumulated: disassembled lab benches, broken down shelving units, rubber mats, and probably some deceased wildlife (I suspect I blocked that part out from memory). I began clearing things out. After lifting some two inch thick wooden table tops out from behind the machine, I finally reached the bottom of the pile. All that remained were a few rubber mats. I began tossing those aside. At the very bottom was a roll of rubber. I went to toss it aside, and almost threw out my back trying to pull it off the floor. At this point, it occurred to me that this was actually a four foot long, six inch diameter roll of lead sheet, used for shielding our home-made x-ray cabinet. You can see the end of the roll against the wall in the image below. After struggling for a while, I eventually gave up. I don't know how that roll got there, but I suspect it's going to stay there for many years to come. 

     After freeing up some space to work, I had to remove four large steel panels. Two of them involved some precarious use of the engine hoist in a cramped corner to pick them up and move them. Thankfully, no photographic evidence exists. The end result was an exposed spindle and associate high voltage (the machine is fed with 480 V. Turns out 15 kW is a lot. An average house draws about 2 kW). Fortunately, between the Electric Vehicle Team and working for Tesla's Battery Safety and Technology Lab, this wasn't my first time working around high voltage. 

     After all this work, I realized by that a drill rod long enough to give reasonable resolution (I was measuring microns over ~400 mm, in the end) will have a large enough variation in straightness to invalidate the entire measurement. Realizing this, I decided to use the correct technique.

     The published method for checking spindle alignment is to take a long, large diameter piece of material, and turn the outside diameter. After this, the diameter at the two ends of the turned surface should be measured, and if there is a diametrical variation, the spindle and Z axes are not aligned. So I did just this. I had specifically bought a 25-50 mm and a 50-75 mm micrometer for this purpose a few months earlier. The misalignment was massive! It was 84 microns over 300 mm. Or so it seemed. It turns out that when you have a 40 mm aluminum rod unsupported for 300 mm, it's really hard to take a cut on the end of it without deflecting it slightly. This kind of invalidates the entire taper measurement. So I had to step it up to a larger diameter piece of stock. Unfortunately, the largest collet we have is 40 mm, so I had to swap the collet head out for a three jaw hydraulic chuck. 

     Turns out leaning into a machine, holding a 49 lb chuck with one hand, and using the other to screw a large nut inside of the chuck onto the end of a hydraulic cylinder is difficult to manage. So rather than asking a labmate for help, I opted to make a rig. I grabbed a large piece of round aluminum and placed it over the open door, with one end on either side of the opening. Using a hoisting strap and some zipties, I made a sling and mounted that on the rod. using some aluminum sheet and some aluminum blocks, I made a pair of wedges to keep the bar from rolling around. I then placed the chuck in the improvised sling and let it bear the weight, freeing up a hand for carefully maneuvering the chuck into place. Once the chuck was mounted, I obtained some larger diameter stock and threw it in the machine for another go at machining the OD.

     Initial results were promising. The taper was reduced, and there was no audible chatter while machining the end. At this point, I assumed the spindle was, in fact, going to need alignment. So I went ahead and started looking for a wrench to loosen the six large hold down bolts on the headstock. The first problem: whatever is used to loosen the bolts will be used to tighten them. Tightening them requires a torque wrench, which means they need to be square drive. Each bolt has a 14 mm hex key socket. The largest square drive hex bit we have in lab is 8 mm. After spending a few days scouring various shops on campus, my housemate's automotive tools, and local hardware stores, I gave up on finding a 14 mm socket drive hex bit. Buying one online will cost a lot of money and more time, so I gave up and decide to make my own. I grabbed a piece of oversized hexagonal steel, and using my lab's wire EDM, I made it into the appropriately sized Allen wrench. I then used a regular socket wrench to drive it.

     The second problem: each of these hold down bolts is spec'd at 250 ft-lbs of torque. For perspective, my car's engine puts out about 100 ft-lbs of torque. We build medical devices. We don't have torque wrenches large enough for this job. So I spend another few days trying to find a torque wrench large enough. After exhausting all but one resource, I went to a shop on campus  (which will remain unnamed) and was kindly lent one under the table.

     And so, I went to align the spindle. Fortunately, I accidentally stepped on the pedal which activates the hydraulic chuck. This meant the part unfixtured, and the previous OD turn was no longer a valid reference surface for alignment. I say "fortunately" because had this not happened, I would have misaligned the spindle. After unfixturing by mistake, I performed a new OD turn and found that the taper was reduced. I had removed less material on this pass than before, which seemed to indicate that the bar was still deflecting during the operation. As such, I carefully tweaked my cutting parameters, and eventually the taper disappeared (well, 2 um over 300 mm. 1/150000 is basically zero), and the results were repeatable. And such, after 2.5 weeks of "spindle alignment", it turned out that the spindle had never been misaligned to begin with. I was a little annoyed. So I tried to make the most of the situation.

     The covers I removed had exposed the mechanism for the parts catcher, which had stopped working many years ago. Basically, the parts catcher is a box on a rotating shaft that is actuated by a little hydraulic motor, and it flips up during a parting (cut-off) operation to catch the finished part and deposit it in a box, rather than at the bottom of the coolant pan. It had mysteriously stopped working long before the current batch of grad students started. I began debugging the hydraulics system. Eventually, I found the appropriate solenoid. I triggered the mechanical override on the valve and the parts catcher flipped up, very slowly. I adjusted the flow control valves until it moved at a reasonable rate.

     Clearly, the problem was not of a hydraulic nature. So I began diagnosing the electrical system. I pulled the connectors on the solenoids and got a multimeter. The solenoids nominally get about 99 VAC. I tried issuing the parts catcher command, and observed no change. So I pulled off some of the other solenoid controls for working components (like the caliper for the spindle's disc brake), and tested them. It seems that the difference between on and off is about 1 VAC. Strange. Well, it was clear that the solenoid was not getting the appropriate signal. Just to be thorough, I swapped the control wires from the disc brake to the parts catcher, and tested to ensure that the solenoid worked when it received the proper signal. It did. Unfortunately, this meant that the problem was either a controller problem, or a software problem. Since I have little faith in software, and because it's a little easier to get at than the CNC controller, I decided to pursue a the software route.

     Turns out that 1993 was not a good year for CNC controller software. Nor were any of the adjacent years, for that matter. All of the parameters for machine settings are hidden in these parameter menus, where every parameter is given a number (such as B49 or Q152). To understand what that parameter controls, you take the number, and you look it up in the manual, where an explanation is given. For some parameters, such as the ones that control the tool eye offsets, you put in some number that has physical meaning. For others, you put in some number derived from a formula. Some parameters are simply eight bits, and you input a string of ones and zeros to turn certain features on and off. Seeing as the machine does not have non-volatile memory, and it is 20 years old, when it loses power for extended periods of time, the back-up battery gets depleted and all parameters are reset. I know this has happened a few times. So my best guess at this point was that one of the parameters was not set correctly. The obvious solution would be to look through the parameters manual and find the one that corresponds to the parts catcher. Unfortunately, nothing is ever really easy with this machine. Mazak doesn't publish about 70% of the parameters, because they don't want users changing them. As such, I wound up looking online, and there aren't very many resources available. Eventually, I started digging through ancient documentation our lab keeps in the annex. I found a copy of the parameters list, with many years of edits scribbled onto it. Unfortunately, of the hundreds of eight digit parameters, only a few are labeled, and none of the labels or comments mention the parts catcher. So, in a brute-force approach, I wound up going through the entire list, checking each parameter one by one, until I found that a pair of bits were swapped. Sure enough, swapping the ones and zeros resulted in the parts catcher suddenly working again.

     After making a note on the paper parameters list about the parts catcher, I decided to pursue fixing another long-running problem on the Mazak: the inability to single-point right hand threads. When single-pointing threads, a triangular cutting tool (i.e. a tool with the profile of a single thread) is moved across the surface of  the part, and its motion is synchronized to rotation of the spindle, so that multiple passes can be made along the same exact trajectory, eventually leading to a nice spiral thread, as seen here (incidentally, we just this exact lathe in lab. It's a little benchtop unit. I was responsible for coordinating the purchase and getting it set up, which was a whole other set of headaches. The threading only happens in the second half of the video). Single-pointing is great. It allows you to quickly and easily cut custom threads that are nice and concentric, with way less hassle than using a tap or die. For some reason though, the Mazak doesn't like it. It'll approach the part, and then just stop and not move. No errors will be thrown. However, the operation works fine if the spindle is spinning in reverse. This basically means we can only cut left-hand threads. After many hours of searching through the parameters list, nothing came to fruition. I went to the internet, and after determining that our machine is the only one with this problem, I asked a machinist forum for help. Using some procedures they passed along, I recalibrated the spindle encoder. This involved sticking some o-scope probes inside of a box with some high voltage in it and carefully adjusting tiny potentiometers with a screwdriver while the motor was spinning until the waveform was correct. That was unpleasant, and frankly, unhelpful. The spindle speed tracking improved, but the threading problem was not resolved. I eventually gave up and put the covers back on the machine. Maybe it's time to call Mazak and see what they say. I doubt that'll be terribly helpful though.

     With everything back together, I realized it was time to pursue the major alignment project: the turret. The turret has been notoriously misaligned for years, meaning that all the tooling was off by about 150 um radially, in the Y direction. Since the machine has no control over this axis, there's no calibration or software solution. While the vertical error is acceptable for simple OD and ID turns, it was proving to be problematic when using live tooling, as any holes drilled in the face of the part would be in the incorrect location, which often resulted in non-functional parts. Unfortunately, I did not realize how long the turret alignment would take, nor how many resources. Look for the next two parts to learn how fire, diamonds, cavemen, and precision machinery all come together into one miserable experience.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Let's try this again.

      Hrm.... So I started this entry at the beginning of my summer. I then began working 60+ hours a week. So it got cut short. But I figure I can post it anyway, since apparently people keep asking for me to start my blog again. So here. I'm starting my blog again. Maybe I'll start regular postings again. But seeing as grad school is pretty uninteresting at the moment, you'll have to deal with an incomplete story from 5 months ago. Enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We will return to your regular programming shortly

     Ahem.. I've been absent from the blogosphere for a bit longer than anticipated. If you're wondering why, it's because The Chief and I have had many more adventures since the one below, and they happen at such high frequency that I can't keep up with writing about them. But more on that later. I expect to finish part three of the first misadventure with The Chief shortly. And trust me; they only get better from here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bonding time with The Chief - Part 2: Medium James to the rescue!

     So Tuesday was a disaster. There's really no way around it. I had discovered a few minor issues, but there was really only one critical issue on my mind. The Chief kept overheating, and I didn't know why. Regardless how awesome the zebra print interior is, a Jeep that can only go two miles before breaking down is pretty useless. That night, I did some research on overheating issues. I found a few potential causes. There were a few of the usual suggestions: thermostat getting stuck closed (could be, because there was definitely circulation), auxiliary fan failure (due to fan, relay, or temperature sensor failure), or water pump failure (again, there was definitely circulation, so unlikely). However, I learned that the old (1988-1992) XJ ran a closed cooling system, meaning the overflow bottle had to keep pressure in it. This elevated pressure raises the boiling point of the fluid, allowing the coolant to run hotter. However, the previous owner was oblivious to this and filled the overflow bottle to the top, meaning it built too much pressure and blew the cap off. In general, this system is not highly praised in the Jeep world. I had some leads, now it was time to investigate.

     I went to work on Wednesday and mentioned the failure to my coworkers. They noted that I could probably work on the Jeep in front of The Bunker (the building where our lab is located: nicely recessed into a hill and full of bomb-proof equipment). This was good to know about. I would definitely need a place to work.

     After I got out of work, I called Big/Medium James, who had just arrived in Palo Alto on Monday. I asked if he wanted to meet up and help me rescue The Chief. He and Leonid were both just sitting around and watching TV, so they agreed that they might be up for an adventure. They decided to pick me up from Tesla (since they literally live up the street), and off we went to find my car. I remembered vaguely where I left it (at the intersection of 84 and 101 in Redwood City), so we made our way over by use of road signs and a vague sense of direction. On the way, I found out Leonid (the driver) had only had his license for a week. Just long enough for them to drive cross-country. Upon arriving at the parking lot where I had left it, I was relieved so see that it was still there. After all, none of the doors lock (well, they don't unlock, so I don't lock them). I guess if somebody had decided to steal it, they wouldn't have gotten very far.

     After Big James and Leonid laughed at the sight of The Chief, I got on with investigating the problem. Being more informed than before, I knew what to look for. I discovered two major issues. First off, the pressure bottle was stripped and certainly leaking, causing all the coolant to boil off (I later discovered that there was a black mark on the inside of the hood from when the cap blew off.. More pierogi, please). The second issue was a bit of an unexpected one. It was, as suggested, a problem with the auxiliary fan. However, it wasn't the relay or the sensor. I just didn't have and auxiliary fan. I'm not sure how that even happens.

     Well, that was it. The coolant system couldn't really be fixed on the spot. I had to get the car somewhere more workable. I believe that at some point, the plan was to get it back to Jason's place. However, that was quickly deemed a bad idea, and I decided that Tesla was closer and more conducive to working on cars. So I topped off the coolant and went back to the gas station from the night before to make sure I had enough gas to get me to Tesla (I didn't trust the gas gauge at this point. Turns out it's one of the few things that does work like it's supposed to). Being from Jersey and all, I'm not too experienced with self-serve gas. I've done it before, but still. On this occasion, I wasn't sure if the place took Discover, and seeing as I still didn't have a checking card (this seems to be a motif in these stories), I chose to pay with cash. Which I had never done at a gas station before. After becoming severely confused by why I couldn't get gas, James and Leonid told me that I had to go inside and pay first.


I knew that.

     So I went inside, to find the guy from the night before. "You're still here??" he said. I explained that I had left the car for the night and that I didn't get back to it until after work. At this point, he went off into some story about his brothers car breaking down, so he had to skateboard to work, or something. I don't know. I asked for $20 on pump 4, verified that I could use the hose outside, and went on my 'merry' way. It occurred to me last night that I may have left the filler cap at the gas station.. FML.

     After putting some gas in the tank and verifying that the fuel gauge worked, we filled up the two empty antifreeze containers with water from the hose and agreed on a plan. I would follow behind Leonid and Big James, and every two miles or so, we would stop to let the engine cool down and refill the coolant system. Off we went. I obviously stalled at a few lights, so in hindsight, it may have been better for James and Leonid to stay behind me at a safe distance (in case of stalling on a hill and rolling back). They were serving as navigation though, because I was going to be too busy trying to keep The Chief alive to be bothered with anything more than following the car in front of me. To be safe, I was keeping the revs up at lights to prevent the engine from sputtering and dying like it had the night before. Also, the higher revs with no torque meant that the main fan was pulling more air over the radiator while the engine wasn't producing too much additional heat (or so I like to think).

     About two miles into the trip, I waved for Leonid and James to pull off El Camino Real so we could check the status of the coolant. They responded instantaneously and gave me no time to react, so I drove right past them. I pulled off at the next possible location. Imagine my surprise when I found myself here:
Yes. I had pulled into the empty (but incredibly classy) parking lot of Ferrari/Maserati of Silicon Valley. Thank god they were closed for the day, as I'm positive I would have been shooed away immediately. James and Leonid pulled up a few minutes later, laughing hysterically. I grabbed the water from the trunk as James took this fantastic photo:
Upon opening the hood, I found the coolant bottle had sealed well and not boiled off all the coolant yet. So while I gawked at the Ferraris and Maseratis behind the glass, The Chief cooled off for the next leg of the journey.

     That next leg was not particularly long. I started smelling burning oil and noticed steam from under the hood. I waved James and Leonid off the road and we pulled into a small neighborhood. The overflow bottle and unsealed and sprayed coolant everywhere, and boiled off the rest. Flash boiling is an unpleasant thing when in a car. I let The Chief cool off some more and we sat around for a while. Finally, I refilled the coolant, and decided that refilling the antifreeze container would be a good idea. After spending about five minutes trying to figure out if we could just use a hose on the outside of one of the houses, we decided to just knock and ask someone to fill the bottle for us. We then spent five minutes trying to determine which door was the front door. Finally, we knocked and were greeted by a trophy-wife, who gladly filled the container with water.

     Off we went. And not much later, we were on the side of El Camino Real, right in front of the Stanford campus. I discovered that I do have a hazard light button, hidden on the steering column (where I had looked the previous night with no success). However, only the right rear indicator worked, which suggested I was trying to get back into traffic. No hazards it was. While Leonid walked off to the Trader Joe's across the street for some tasty mozzarella balls, James and I sat around waiting for The Chief to cool down before refilling the coolant, again.

     Eventually, we headed off again. At this point, it was already dark. We finally got off of El Camino and onto Page Mill Road, which we thought was the last leg of the trip. Leonid decided he wanted to turn off well before Deer Creek, though, and wound up at an entrance to one of the many HP buildings. He also decided to liberally use the brakes in front of me. We were in a parking lot, so I just drove around him and over a traffic island in the middle of the lot. This is why I bought a Jeep. O, and then I stalled, right as the steam started pouring out from the overflow bottle de-pressurizing. So it was probably a good thing that Leonid had taken a wrong turn.

     We stood around in the unlit parking lot for a while, forming a small circle around the container of mozzarella balls. We had each pulled out our pocket knives and were using them to stab the balls an eat them.  Eventually, The Chief cooled down again, and driving over another traffic island on the way out, we departed on what was to be our actual last leg. With the exception of stalling on a hill an almost rolling back into the BMW who had gotten to close (hey, he deserved the scare, for being that close), everything went smoothly. We dropped The Chief off in front of the bunker, and after our 3.5 hour, 10 mile long journey, we went to In-N-Out.

     We retreated to James's, Leonid's, and Karen's place to eat our In-N-Out and hang out for a bit. The adorable house cat demanded attention and took our minds off our journey. Finally, when it was time to leave, I realized I had left the keys in the ignition. On one hand, I knew it wasn't going anywhere. On the other, that's just poor practice. So James kindly drove me back to Tesla to grab my keys before dropping me off at home. We had started at 6:30 pm, and by midnight, all we had accomplished was getting The Chief ten miles, and eating some In-N-Out.

Clearly, I had some work to do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bonding time with The Chief- Part 1

     So you may have noticed, but I haven't been on top of this blogging thing as much as I would like. Mostly because I've been busy this week. I had arranged to buy the Jeep on Tuesday. In between looking at the car and buying the car, I had to figure out how to pay for it. I called my bank, and found out that the "only way" I could get cash was via postal money order. However, you need to purchase a money order with a debit card.. Which I had lost. So, I had to settle for using Jason as a middle man and writing him a check to cash. I feel bad, because I was about to suck Jason into a lot more of my problems than I would have liked.

     I had agreed to meet up with Paul for dinner on Tuesday after work. We met on California Ave and caught up while watching people ogle at his electric motorcycle. We finished our meal and went our separate ways. I had arranged for Jason to pick me up at the California Ave Caltrain so he could drive me to go get the car. I had brought a copy of the Kelly Blue Book estimated value of the car in hopes of talking the price down. It occurs to me that I should have done this before agreeing to buy the car. This isn't the last lesson in buying cars I would get.

     We arrived in Redwood City, and Jason asked me if I had bought insurance yet. Hmm.. I had shopped around for insurance, but for some reason I thought there was a grace period between buying a car and insuring it. It occurs to me that this was a stupid assumption, but since I had already shopped around for insurance, I knew who to buy it from. So Jason offered to look up the phone number while I was inside taking care of all the paperwork. Off I went, to attempt to negotiate price and to transfer the title.

     I walked up to the house and greeted the grandmother with a Polish "Good day!" She was ecstatic. Needless to say, negotiating the price didn't work out. Since I was still paying less than I had planned to spend on a car, I didn't mind and moved on. Next came the paper work. The Polish mother reminded me of my very own Polish mother. Similar haircut, similar build, similar way of talking. And of course, she works for a bank, so she knew how to handle all the paperwork (much like my own mother). It was rather hilarious hearing the daughter debate with her mother (not unlike my own mother and sister). The daughter spoke in Polish though, as her parents made her when she was young. The mother recounted "When they were young, if they spoke English to me, I would speak Russian to them. I don't understand you, and now you don't understand me!" Reminds me of when my parents would speak Russian to hide things from my sister and me.

     The paperwork went reasonably well. No real snags, apart from writing my first name before my last name (a common problem I have. Maybe I should just start writing Nawrot, Michael on all of my psets and tests). At some point, the daughter made a similar mistake and cursed in Polish. I snickered and she responded with "O no! I can't say that in front of him! He understands!" The entire time, the grandma was using the mother as a translator. Finally, as I was leaving, the mother finally caved and explained, "Mama! He can understand you! He just can't speak very well!"

     The grandmother was even more ecstatic. Suddenly I found myself in a casual conversation littered with broken Polish and resulting laughter. I don't remember much of the details, but the conclusion was as follows:

"Here, take some home made Pierogi with you!"
"O, wow, thank you!"
"Mama, I babysit near Tesla! Next time Grandma makes Pierogi, I'll bring him some!"
"That would be amazing! Thank you so much! You guys are too kind"

... For what follows, they owe me a lot of fucking Pierogi.

     It didn't start off too bad. I got out of the house, got the insurance company's phone number from Jason, thanked him for the map, and told him I would catch him later. He left, I got in the Jeep, adjusted the seat and mirrors, and went about attempting to drive stick for the first time (excluding the stick I've driven on an electric Porsche, of course. But you can't stall an electric car in the same way, so that doesn't really count). I'm glad I know the theory and the physics behind it, because I'm sure it would have taken me forever to figure out otherwise. So I put it in reverse, stalled once, and then set off on my merry way. I was going to drive it around the block to get used to it, then call the insurance company once I was no longer in front of their house (to not be creepy and awkward and all). I did just that, with many a stall along the way. At this point, it was getting dark. I called the insurance company and started going through the motions. In the meantime, I had noticed a few quirks about the car. The dash illumination didn't work, there was no interior lighting, and the glove compartment was tiny. Things I could live with or easily fix. The lady from the insurance company was quite friendly and helpful. However, when it came time to check my license and driving record, we ran into a bit of a snag. "Sir, the DMV database for New Jersey is down for maintenance... I'm not sure we can do this tonight. I'll give it a try, but it might be another twenty minutes or so. I'll give you a call back."

... Great. I had nowhere to be, so I continued practicing around the block. At some point, I got a voicemail. I pulled over and gave it a listen. Turns out the database was probably down for the rest of the night. Great. Screw you, New Jersey DMV. I'm not even in New Jersey and you still find a way to make me wait. At this point, I was stranded and needed to find a way back home. Driving without insurance, despite my momentary lapse of reason, is stupid. So I called Jason and asked if he could please come back and pick me up. I felt like a bit of a tool at this point. the Jeep smelled like it needed a rest from me burning the clutch up, so I got out and wandered around for a little bit. Finally, the insurance company calls back and informs me that I have been successfully insured. Right about then, Jason shows up. I felt bad for having him make the twenty minute drive yet again, but at least now I had somebody to guide me home.

     Off we went. The burnt smell hadn't quite gone away, but I figured the clutch had enough time to cool off that it was probably fine. I stalled a few times on the way up to the 101, at lights here and there, but I was keeping up and only pissing off a few people. Then the shit hit the fan (well, if there was a fan to hit). We pulled up to the last light before the on-ramp to the 101. As I was coasting down to a stop, clutch fully depressed, the idle dropped and the engine cut out. Uh Oh.

     I pull up at the light and tried to get the engine to turn over. At this point, Jason was two cars in front of me, first at the light, and didn't really have much of a choice but to go. This intersection was quite busy, and the people behind me were very frustrated when I didn't go. Even worse, I couldn't find the button for the emergency lights. I was stuck at this massive intersection with no engine to move me and no way of alerting anybody around me of what was happening. The light changed several times, and at some point, I got the engine to start. The idle was terribly rough, and it sputtered and died before I had a chance to move. Finally, after several more light changes, the engine came on, but this time, I kept the revs up by holding my foot on the gas. The guy in front of me kept inching forward, afraid I would run him over. I guess waiting at a light with a big Jeep roaring its engine at you could be a bit intimidating. Finally, the light changed, and momentarily breaking my streak of bad luck, I didn't stall. I rolled around the corner and into the nearby gas station. Right as I rolled in, the engine sputtered and died. This night was not over yet.

     I got a call from Jason as he was trying to make his way back to me. He had taken a wrong turn and almost wound up crossing the Dumbarton Bridge. It was going to be a little while. So I popped the hood and found out the cause of my problems. The coolant overflow bottle was completely empty. I opened the trunk and found some gloves, rags, and antifreeze. Seems like somebody had had this problem before me. I sure would have liked to have known that ahead of time. I checked the oil as a precaution and proceeded to refill the coolant bottle. At some point during this process, Jason showed up and helped me push the car over a speed bump and into the light. I filled the bottle with antifreeze, and watched it all disappear somewhere. Luckily, we were at a gas station.

     I went inside the station and asked for some antifreeze. The guy pointed to some and said, "It's right there, but I'm afraid we're closed"

"O.. My car broke down and I really need some antifreeze."
"Well, I guess if you really need it.. But I just counted all the money and I don't want to do it again.."

Too bad I didn't have my Visa.. *kicks self*

"Ok, thanks a lot man."

*rings it up*


     It occurred to me at this point that I had run out of cash, so I had written a slightly larger check to Jason, as a sort of ATM transaction on top of the money for the car. However, this meant I only had two $100 bills on me. I pulled out the hundred and the gas station attendant just glared at me. "You've got to be kidding..."

Luckily, I had a single and I let him keep the $0.13 of change, so he wouldn't have to count the coins again.

     Needless to say, we attempted to refill the coolant some more, running the engine a few times only to see the coolant disappear into nothingness yet again. I threw in the towel (or rag, I suppose) for the night. The gas station attendant was leaving right as I did so, so I asked him where I could park for the night. He pointed me to some spots, and as he left, I got the engine to start just long enough for me to pull into a spot and kill it. I got all my stuff out of the car (seeing as it doesn't lock at the moment) and drove off with Jason. It was close to midnight now, and I had started this whole car buying trip around 7:30. We stopped at Jack-in-the-box on the way back (delicious, by the way), and ate in Jason's living room while I researched potential causes of the problem.

Fun fact: If you search 1988 Jeep Cherokee, the second autocomplete is "Overheating".

After doing some research, I went to bed, hoping to recover The Chief the next day. I was exhausted from all the excitement, but unfortunately, it wasn't over....