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MSI - A Trip Back
Kirt's Cogitations™ #202

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MSI - A Trip Back

In the days of yore, many, if not most, of the large aerospace/defense companies operated campus-style groups of buildings that occupied huge amounts of real estate. Under those collective roofs, virtually every form of trade and profession was practiced. Accountants, engineers, scientists, electricians, librarians, nurses and maybe even a doctor, managers, plumbers, writers, cooks, carpenters, gardeners, assembly line workers, HVAC technicians, and machinists, to name just a few, carried out their duties. Each group had its own facilities spread around the campus, and together, entire systems were conceived of, designed, built, tested and shipped. Those places were cities unto themselves.

Now, you would be forgiven for thinking the previous text was a lead-in to lamentation of the virtually total disappearance of such conglomerations due to the devolution of the defense industrial complexes in the country, but it is not. That is not to say the situation is not deserving of a good lamentation. I will save that for a later time. Instead it is a segue into waxing nostalgic over the times when you could cruise through the various areas of the facility and get a first-hand look at all the incredibly skilled operations that went into creating the wonderful systems that were produced under those roofs. In particular, I speak of the machine shops.

Although I ultimately chose electronics for a lifelong profession, going the mechanical engineering route would have been equally satisfying since I have always had a great appreciation for complex machined assemblies. Watching the CNC machines in the shop at the Westinghouse Oceanic Division (Annapolis, MD) turn out perfectly smooth, parabolic aluminum molds for casting polyurethane nose caps for the MK series torpedoes was mesmerizing. The way the lathes turned out perfectly cut threads on discs a foot or more in diameter had to be seen to be fully appreciated. Sheet metal assemblies were fully cut and punched first and then bent into final form with all the edges and holes falling into perfect alignment. It is truly an art form as well as a trade. If not for being a safety hazard, I might have expected the guys there to wear ponytails and sandals with tie-dyed shirts (come to think of it, some did – except the sandals).

Anyway, my point is that last week I had the opportunity to relive those times while spending about an hour touring the machine shop at Machine Specialties, Incorporated (MSI), where my, daughter, Sally, works as a Logistics Specialist. MSI employs about 35 machinists who make some of the most impressive mechanical parts that I have seen in a long time. Their building is outfitted with mostly automated equipment that is computer-driven, but that does not diminish the necessary skills of the people who operate it. In fact, according to the shop supervisor, finding guys with the requisite skills is getting increasingly difficult. Machinists as far way as Florida have been recruited to fill the positions there.

One notable difference in the shop at MSI from the ones I remember is that just about every machine features an actual work area that is fully enclosed so that no moving parts are exposed during the machining operations. Even interchangeable tooling is done under computer control from within the enclosure. Surely this is a result of the huge effort to reduce the number of often gruesome accidents that used to occur way too often years ago. I remember having to watch safety procedure films (no videos then) with testimonials from people that had lost eyes, fingers, limbs or other body parts as a result of avoidable actions. It is good to see that such progress has been made.

I will end my trip down Memory Lane with the noting of one machine in particular that I had never seen before, but that performs an amazing feat – the Electrical Discharge Machine (EDM). Now, this is not a device for testing the survivability of integrated circuits when exposed to high voltage discharges (ESD/EOS). Rather, it is a machine that feeds a thin brass wire with high voltage applied to a grounded metal part and removes metal by melting away the unwanted material. The process is achieved without the brass adhering to the part, and the finished surface is nearly as smooth as if it had been polished – no scarring or pitting or evidence of facets. It has the added benefit of locally hardening the surface. I was shown examples of complex 3-dimensional parts that had been made, including a tiny device that looked like a part of a metering nozzle with extremely thin slots cut through it (they could not say what it was – the old, "I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you" thing).

It was nice to get to see another part of "the big picture" again. We are so specialized anymore that it is easy to forget the genius that goes into the rest of our products.

A huge collection of my 'Factoids' can be accessed from my 'Kirt's Cogitations' table of contents.

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