After performing miserably in Mr. Waag's wood shop class in seventh grade at Pine Valley 16 years ago, I proceeded to perform miserably in Mr. Seivert's metal shop class in eighth grade.
It's only natural then that, after narrowly escaping a woodworking factory with my dignity intact in the first installment of this feature last month, I should put it all on the line again in a machine shop this month.
I arrived at Miles Machine Inc. on Jones and Gifford Avenue not knowing quite what to expect. I know there are plenty of machine shops in town, and I know several people who work inside said shops, but what goes on within their walls was a complete mystery to me.
This had come to light when I spoke with Miles Machine's owner, Rick Page, on the phone a week earlier to set up my visit. One of the first things I said, excitedly and stupidly, was, ''Yeah, I'd like to get in there and do some welding, and ...''
Rick quickly cut me off and informed me, ''We don't do welding here. We're strictly a machine shop.''
With welding taken off the board, the only iota of a concept of a machine shop I had was complete shattered - I had absolutely no clue what the next words out of his mouth would be. He could have been about to say ''wizardry'' or ''human sacrifice,'' for all I knew.
Aluminum dust paints my fingers after I?finish sanding a part at Miles Machine Inc. on Jones and Gifford Avenue. For more photos, videos and other goodness from this adventure, visit www.post-journal.com and click on the Lifestyles tab.
P-J photos by Aimee Frederick
Micrometers hang on the wall above the workbench behind the Kiwa four-axis CNC?machine at Miles Machine Inc. Thankfully, Rick Page told me what these were, so I?knew this wasn’t some kind of torture chamber.
A hammer is a tool I?know how to use. You bang on things with it. At Miles Machine, a somewhat soft-headed hammer is used to ensure that parts are flush with the frame.
Mike holds a finished part up to an aluminum block just inserted into the CNC?machine, showing how much of a change it has to undergo — over the course of several steps — to become a finished product.
Mike shows me the level of skill and precision it takes to use a tiny belt sander to smooth out the edges on a part. My balled up fists probably show I?don’t have the finesse for it.
The torque wrench proved to be my undoing, as I?found it quite impossible to use it to loosen the bolt holding a tray in a machine. Rick Page asked me if I?needed a ‘‘Sally bar.’’ I?still don’t know what that means.
Rick then rattled off a laundry list of tasks, including some terms such as ''air wrench'' and ''deburring'' that filled me with a strange mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. One half of me was looking forward to this new challenge, while the other half was concerned about words like ''wrench.''
I don't do well with tools. My bathroom is still in disrepair after the remodeling job I tried to merely assist with two years ago.
But Rick assured me I'd be under the constant watchful eye of him and his son, Mike, and that I couldn't possibly break anything, either in the shop or in my body.
Come to think of it, maybe he didn't say that last part. Maybe I just kept telling myself that so I wouldn't be so nervous.
Before I could touch anything in the shop, Rick called me into his office and sat me down to give me a lesson in how important it is for measurements to be precise when crafting machine parts.
My head spun as Rick lay before me a series of tools that, had I not had him there to explain to me, I'd have thought could have only been used for torture purposes - what, with all their dials, clamps and probes.
The numerous different calipers, verniers and micrometers Rick showed me are each used to measure to a thousandth of an inch. A human hair divided in half three times is about a thousandth of a inch, he said.
That sounded like a pretty precise measurement to me. But then Rick told me that isn't even as small as they measure when they are inspecting a part for accuracy.
''We work down to tenths (of thousandths),'' he said. ''So take a human hair, split it 30 times, and that's how close we measure.''
Rick spent a good 20 minutes showing me all the different kinds of measuring devices the shop uses to ensure that each of the parts that leaves its doors is exactly sized, showing me different parts that require closer inspection and more operator intervention to ensure top quality, and showing me the inspection sheets employees must use to document that they have adequately checked each batch of parts that comes out of a machine.
About 95 percent of what he told me went completely over my head. And I think Rick realized this, as I ended up not touching a single one of those measuring devices out on the shop floor. It was probably better left to the professionals anyway.
The important knowledge I came out from this pre-shift meeting with was that attention to detail in the manufacturing of these parts is extremely important. Just a few tens of thousandths of an inch one way or another, and a whole batch of parts that would have been destined for a motorcycle, car or airplane is instead just a pile of scrap metal.
I was beginning to be glad my editors don't check my work that closely.
LEARNING THE MACHINE
The Kiwa is a four-axis CNC machine made in Japan that Miles Machine is currently using to make an aftermarket part for Audis for a dealer in California.
When I made my way over to it, it was in the middle of a cycle, turning a solid block of aluminum into a shiny car part. And it appeared to be spewing out the melted remains of mint ice cream in the process.
Just when I inquired, but before I could stick my finger in the runoff trough to sample the green goodness, Mike informed me that while the liquid may have looked delicious, it likely was not - it was actually a coolant that is sprayed on the parts as the tools are doing their thing, keeping the aluminum from melting out of shape.
As I had learned last month at Fancher Chair, these CNC machines are incredibly intricate pieces of technology. As we waited for the 89-minute cycle to finish and the parts to be ejected, Mike showed me the computer program that he designed, using CAD/CAM software, to teach the machine to go through the process.
Mike showed me how easy it is for a skilled programmer such as him to make minute adjustments to the operation and the precision of the machine by going into the program and altering just a number or two. I had a hard time focusing, though, because I was simply afraid that he would press a wrong button and wipe out a large chunk of the code while he was fiddling in there for my sake, leaving him with who-knows-how-much work to make up thanks to my curiosity.
Of course, it's all surely backed up somewhere. And he's not a wrong-button-pushing buffoon. But I always think about what I would probably do if I were in the other person's position, and I would be quite likely to wipe out the entire system.
Meanwhile, the cycle ended and the parts were ready for our intervention. It was time to get my hands dirty.
THE PROBLEM WITH PLUGS
Mike demonstrated for me how to remove the first set of parts from the machine. This involved loosening some clamps by use of an Allen wrench.
Other than being completely awkward in my twisting motions, the Allen wrench didn't give me too much trouble. The parts were off the clamp and on the workbench behind me in no time.
A specially fit plug was located inside each of the parts and needed to be removed, however. The only tools for this job were the ones God gave us - our hands. And Mike, almost instantly upon using his hands to remove a plug from the first part, sliced a finger open.
It was a very minor surface wound, which he compared it to a paper cut, and his reaction told me that it wasn't painful in any way. But watching the blood run down his finger before he wrapped it in a cloth, I wasn't looking forward to my attempt at plug removal.
Mike told me to avoid touching the edges if at all possible, as the plug's roundness was deceiving. Obviously, it was sharp. Gingerly, I pushed at the plug from beneath to no avail. I used all my might (which admittedly isn't saying much) and turned my thumbs a bright shade of red as I pushed downward.
My mentor reminded me that this task wasn't supposed to be about force, it was about the angle - if I moved that plug in just the right way, it should pop right out without a fight. Sure enough, after another minute or so of cajoling, I hit the magic spot and the plug fell into my hand. I examined all my fingers and discovered nary a drop of blood. I'd set no standards for time, but I'd completed the job safely.
Those plugs then needed to be inserted into the next parts that were ready to enter the Kiwa, a process that is even trickier than getting them out. While they appear to be simply matched with the holes in the part, the plugs need to be dropped in at a slight angle to fit properly inside. This is no simple task for a novice.
Mike, a seasoned veteran, dropped his plug in seconds flat. I, meanwhile, struggled to say the least. Trying every angle possible - and, again, being careful not to dig my fingers into those razor sides - I worked at this task for minutes that felt like hours. Mike, to his credit, did not get frustrated ... though when I got back to the office and later watched video of this scene, the faces I saw him making at the camera told a different story.
I eventually, maybe miraculously, found the proper angle and dropped my plug into my part. We reloaded the machine, removed the other parts (yes, there were still others in there that needed to be moved out - this was a painfully slow process for Mike, I'm sure) and reloaded those fixtures, and moved on to other matters.
SANDING TO PERFECTION
Mike walked me over to the sanding station, where the rough edges that are left behind by the CNC machine get filed away.
Using a tiny handheld belt sander, Mike buzzed down the little sharp points that the machine created in tight corners where two tools had met. With speed and grace, he worked out all the edges and made the entire part one rounded piece of art.
He then handed the sander over to me and told me to do exactly what he had just done. Timidly, I began my attempt.
I ever-so-gently moved the sander toward the part until I could just barely feel them touch. I brushed the sander back and pulled it away, repeating the process several times until the first burr was removed. I then repeated the process slowly on sharp edge two - with many others to go, not to mention all the other tiny imperfections that Mike told me needed to be buffed out.
I couldn't imagine that every single shiny metal part on a motorcycle or a car goes through this process or a similar one. But it does. It's mind-boggling to me.
While I was contemplating this and sanding carefully, Mike asked me how long I was planning to be at the shop that afternoon. I started to answer the question seriously, until I realized that was just his way of telling me I was taking entirely too long with the sanding process.
I picked up the pace and finished sanding the part to my satisfaction. Mike then turned the sander off for me and took me over to a table covered with sandpaper, where we buffed up all the flat sides of the part. I felt like we were just scratching the whole thing up, but Mike told me this had to be done.
After one last once-over with Scotch-Brite, the part was complete. It was dropped into a cleaning solution to soak, and I was off to my next task.
TROUBLE WITH TORQUE
I became Rick's ward once again, as he decided it would be a good idea to show me how to use an air wrench before I left.
Rick was using the air wrench to fasten parts onto a tray that was being insert into an older CNC machine. Sixteen round parts went onto each tray, and a bolt was used to affix each one down. Each bolt was tightened securely using first the air wrench and then a torque wrench.
Putting the parts onto the tray and tightening them in was no problem for me. I did lose control of the air wrench a time or two, nearly jamming it into my hand on one particular occasion, but I was able to tighten the parts down and get them into the machine pretty quickly by my standards. Granted, I did have Rick feeding them to me right-side up out of the box, saving me a step, but I'm not against taking a shortcut here and there if it's offered.
The cycle of the machine was about five minutes, giving me just enough time to remove the parts from the tray each time and place new ones on. My stumbling block each time, however, came when I needed to remove the tray from the machine itself.
When the tray is placed in the CNC machine, it is clamped in using a large torque wrench. That's all well and good. But when the time would come to loosen the clamp and remove the tray ... well ... I couldn't get that bolt to loosen.
I yanked and yanked on the wrench. I jumped up and down. I threw all 120 pounds of my weight into it. That darn thing wouldn't budge.
Rick just laughed the first time. He asked if I needed a ''Sally bar.'' I told him I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded derogatory. He finally stepped in and, using his manly might, loosened the bolt for me.
This process repeated itself - several times - until finally, once, I was able to somehow gather enough strength to twist that wrench back and loosen it myself. I turned for approval from Rick, only to find that he had stepped away momentarily.
There is no video footage of this event, either. I swear, though, I did it. All by myself.
MEETING WITH JODY
Before I left the shop that afternoon, I had a chance to meet with Jody, an actual new employee who had just started the day before I visited.
Jody said he had worked with machines before, but never in a metal shop and never with anything quite as intricate as what he was encountering at Miles. I told him I was feeling a bit swamped by all the information I had taken in that day, and Jody said I wasn't alone.
''It's very overwhelming,'' he said. ''Hopefully they're patient with me.''
He told me that he hadn't made any major mistakes in his first two days on the job, that he was enjoying himself, and that the management at Miles was very good about encouraging him and working with him as he learned. I told him I had a similar experience, and that I was glad to hear that they're nice to all new recruits, not just the helpless ones from the press.
I left the shop that afternoon a little bit dirtier, but also a little bit wiser about the hard work that goes into making even the littlest metal parts that go into ... well, just about everything. Mike told me that whenever he sees a Gold Wing motorcycle on the road, he looks a little bit closer to see if he can spot a part from Miles on its frame - a part he had a hand in creating.
I know the odds are incredibly long, but I think that whenever I see an Audi, I'm going to look a little bit closer to see if I can spot an aftermarket thingamabob that probably has a superficial blemish or two. That one came from my hands.
Then again, I'm sure they buffed those out after I left.