Engineering Acumen

If woodworking was a religion, what I am about to say would almost be regarded as heresy, and be grounds for excommunication.  For those offended by the word which is also regarded as the baddest of the four letter words, I am sorry, but…..here it goes:

IKEA

There – I’ve said it.

Their engineers are bloody clever.  No – seriously.  I have been spending the day putting together some for the home (yes – I can hear the inquisition approaching) and it isn’t furniture designed by designers – it is by a team of engineers.  Everything from the materials, to the packaging, to the break down into a flat-pack that can be assembled with the same techniques used across the product range, the inter-connectivity of different items.  It is all very impressive.  Functional rather than aesthetic, but impressive never-the-less.

Even looking at the current version compared to some assembled a year or so ago (yes, I have been tempted into sinning before), and seeing how they have subtly tweaked the products, eking out the tiniest savings, manufacturing just that tiny bit smarter, substituting materials for cheaper so long as the overall quality of the product is maintained.

It may not seem worthwhile changing a connector that used to be metal for one that is plastic, or another that was all metal to one that has a plastic sheath saving a minuscule amount of material cost, but even Volkswagen used to do the same.  One engineer (way back when) suggested substituting their original steel(?) screws in one part of the car for brass, and the cost saving of a few cents per screw saved the company around $1 million.  (They mush have used a LOT of screws!) As was their practice then of awarding 10% of the profit to the person who proposed an idea that saved the company money, it was a simple thought that made his bank balance swell a mild $100k.  I wonder if IKEA uses the same incentive practice?  Certainly one way of generating continual cost saving innovations.

Pity the local store doesn’t employ a few though: supplying heavy duty trolleys with wheels that are designed to engage the tread of the moving walkways and ramps (none of which are in the store), and those wheels therefore run on two small disks of tread, which quickly collapse under a relatively mild load.  Products not in the right location in the warehouse that the staff give you attitude about if you don’t realise they moved it to their “special sale for the week” area.  Being sold products that you’ve been told are compatible, but find could never be.  From the lofty heights of engineering design superiority, to the lowly depths of typical modern customer service.  At least the Swedish meatballs in the food court are awesome….if you can get through the sight-seeing crowds of “tourists” that seem to visit IKEA just for the ambiance, and a cheap weekend feed.

But be warned – it is a slippery slope to embark upon.  I fear it is too late for me, may my punishment remind others of the evils of treading the path of a heretic.

“quoniam punitio non refertur primo & per se in correctionem & bonum eius qui punitur, sed in bonum publicum ut alij terreantur, & a malis committendis avocentur.”

The Engineer’s Bible

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the Engineering Bible on Stu’s Shed – back mid ’09 it made an appearance – a book that I have wanted to own since first discovering it in 1997/8, but refused to justify the $A200 price tag.  For some reason I jumped on Amazon recently, and found it on there for $US107 (and at current exchange rates, that is $A112).

And that went straight into the shopping cart. (Along with the latest Stephen Hawking,

and perhaps as an unusual juxtaposition, the Lincoln-Obama Inaugural Bible.  Seemed fitting buying a real bible with the Engineer’s one!

But more than that, there is history there, and it is beautifully presented, and has a picture of the Seal of the President of the United States on the cover, and is $US100 (except on the day I was looking).  I got it for $US4.75. Brand new. No idea why it was that price. Wasn’t going to ask.)

So back to the “Standard Handbook of Engineering Calculations”.  Not much more to say, but I am now holding my own copy. Finally. 🙂

This is what I’m talking about!

I just received this email, and it absolutely nails why I think Australian Engineering and Aussie inventors should be strongly supported.  It also goes to show why I am particularly supportive of Torque Workcentres – responsive engineering.  You can talk to them about your machine, and ideas you have, and they take that input seriously.

I have been reading with interest your progression of stories about the Torque Work Centre and thought I would share my experiences with the company that makes these (YAS Engineering).

To set the back ground, I purchased a RouterMaster off eBay a couple of years ago, but I only recently set it up. It was still in its original box and bubble wrap so it was essentially brand new.

Used it a couple of times and it worked really well. The only problem was the dust collection. So I rang the good folks at Torque Work Centre to check if the new dust extractor / shroud would fit my old version. Keith from YAS Engineering answered the question and then started to ask about the machine that I had. After a couple of minutes, he described a number of things that could be tweaked on my old machine (turns out to be nearly 20 years old and one of the first manufactured). Keith offers to tweak the machine for me at a “fair price”.

The summary so far is that I have 20 year old machine, that I bought secondhand and now the owner of the patent and original inventor is offering to tweak it as there have been some improvements to the design since it was built. I was a little taken aback by this as I have never heard of anybody offering such a high level of service on anything. (Imaging buying a 20 year old machine like a saw bench and the manufacturer offering to upgrade it !!)

I dropped the Router Master off to Keith a couple of weeks ago and picked it up this week end. I have to admit, the difference in the machine, the smoothness of operation and the overall functioning of the machine have been improved immensely. From what I though was a pretty good piece of equipment, Keith has tweaked it to make an exceptional piece of equipment. The best part is that my RouterMaster now has the same base as the new version, meaning that I can bolt it straight onto a Torque Work Centre table in the futire. And the price was more than fair !!

I think I can sum up the level of customer service by quoting Keith directly. In his own words “I invented it, so I am responsible for it”.

Just thought I would pass on this example of exceptional service.

If you can use this information to assist the people at Torque Work Centres, please feel free.

Engineering Down Under – you’ve gotta love it!

Assembling the Torque Workcentre

It was hard having to wait to assemble the workcentre – having it sit overnight waiting.  At least it arrived on a Friday!

First job was unpacking the remains of the container, and seeing what, if anything was missing.  By the end of the build, only 2 things appear to have been lost – a single bolt of 4 that holds one of the wheels on, and the assembly instructions!

So a pretty fortunate outcome in the end.

Disassembly of the 'crate'

I was concerned about that gap in the middle, but I now think this is for the shorter versions of the support arm – this unit shipped with the longest 1300mm version, which gets packaged with the 2 main beams rather than in this crate.

After laying it all out, the assembly task did not look that daunting, and in hindsight it wasn’t – nothing like even assembling a Triton Workcentre – this assembly didn’t need instructions, let alone the difficulty caused by missing a single step of the Triton assembly.

Components laid out

Assembly begins upside down, and the tapped holes make it obvious how it goes together.  The two main rails are set out, with the cross bracing bolted across.

Main platform assembled

The legs are then added to either end, with the adjustable legs (which also are the ones with brakes) to the front.  Once this section is finished, the unit it flipped upright for the rest of the assembly.

Legs Assembled

I didn’t get any photos of the next stage – it went so quickly and smoothly it was over before I picked the camera up again.  Throughout the build, I did have the video running, so at least that (hopefully) caught some of the action!

Workcentre Completed

Throughout the build, with every component I picked up I was reminded of the significance of each component – they were heavy, strong, and it was both obvious that it had been built by hand (and not in a bad way), and wasn’t some mass-overseas-produced tool.  This is solid, Australian engineering as it should be.

The total build took all of 90 minutes – a very smooth assembly, even without the instructions.

Tool platform with router attachment

This is the platform for the various tools – in this case for the router.  It includes the optional dust collections shroud. There is still some fine-tuning to do, and a top to be added which I will cover in the next article(s).

Heavy Engineering

From the base, to the upright, the support arm and the tool carrier, it is solid components, solid construction all the way.

It is one thing to see such a unit set up and operating at a woodshow, but you get a real sense for the quality during the build phase.

When did machine construction go wrong?

One of the regulars sent me this photo of a 40″ bandsaw from a website dedicated to old woodworking machines, called www.owwm.com

Old 1890's Cast Iron Bandsaw

Old 1890's Cast Iron Bandsaw

The gentleman in the photo found this bandsaw in the States on eBay – no idea what he paid for it.  The bandsaw itself is from the 1850s – 1890s, and it is 40″ (the wheel diameter), which gives it a massive throat, and it has a significant resaw capacity.  The thing looks like it weights a ton (and that may not be that far from the truth!), being solid cast iron.

I started scanning through the large collection of other bandsaw photos on the site, just out of interest, and noting the dates I started to see a trend emerge.  The newer the bandsaw, the more likely it was that it was folded steel construction than cast iron (and sure, other aspects such as guarding began making an appearance!)

So the question began to form – when did machine construction go ‘wrong’?  When did cast iron stop being the material of choice?

I’m not necessarily proposing that modern, folded metal construction cannot make a good machine, and the cost difference is phenomenal. Cast Iron also has a bit of a bad rap – when done poorly (in modern, cheap productions particularly, when cast iron is used incorrectly in thin casting as a cost-saving measure, using poor material engineering techniques then it is a curse – castings break easily (cast iron is by its nature brittle, unless correctly heat treated to produce versions such as spheroidal cast iron), but it is still a superb material of choice in many situations.

It’s weight can be a significant benefit, particularly for machine stability, it can be easily machined (but leave welding it to the experts – low carbon steel (mild steel) is easily welded, high carbon steel is not, and needs serious welding procedures written to cope with it.  Cast Iron can be thought of as high carbon steel, with so much carbon added that it becomes a bit of a carbon/cementite/iron mix.  Welding it is a bitch!)

Because of the (micro) voids of graphite in the cast, cast iron has real vibration damping capabilites – an excellent property for a machine to have – reduced vibrations means a smoother running machine and less noise.

Finally, strength – put a heavy cast iron body against one made from folded steel – one has inherent strength from the material, the other from careful design and internal ribs trying to dissipate the stresses / tensions and compressive forces so the structure does not fail.  To get that in cast iron, just make the casting thick enough!

So back to my original question – when did ‘it’ go ‘wrong’?  From the OWWM site, the dates of the real transitions appear to be after WW1, but before WW2.  There were massive technological changes happening around that time, a depression, and so a possible emphasis towards lower cost production.  I’m not an historian, so wiser heads would be able to give a much more considered view, but that is what I am seeing as potential influences on machine manufacture.

I’ll stick with my cast iron machines as much as I can – sometimes the traditional is more than a romantic concept.  Sometimes it also makes good engineering sense!

End of an Era

Looks like the last orange tool has been made at the Mecca of Triton users – the Cheltenham Triton Factory.

Looking through GraysOnline this morning, and came across an advert for Triton tooling, which included the line “Unreserved Triton Manufacturing Site Closure Auction”

Not sure what else to say really. I always wondered if I’d be able to return to what I did my degree in (Mechanical Engineering – Manufacturing / Welding / Metallurgy) and end up working there which would have been an awesome combination of my woodworking ‘hobby’ (obsession according to my wife), and my choice of career paths.

(Guess the cat is out of the bag now – yes, I have a secret love affair with steel – especially when it is molten, whether that be in a foundry, being cast, at the end of a welding rod etc)

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