Saturday, August 17, 2019

Drafting and the Three Laws of Engineering

While in college, I took a lot of drafting classes, since drafting was a requirement at the time for engineering students.  This was long before AutoCAD, back in the archaic days of pencils, T-squares, and paper.  Today, that old-fashioned method of drafting belongs on that long list of archaic skills only practiced by senior citizens, such as cursive writing, the ability to dial a rotary phone, map folding, and simple manners. 

Previously, I have written about working for Peden Iron and Steel, the giant industrial supply house.  What I did not mention in that story was that I was originally hired as a draftsman.  The company advertised for a draftsman with no professional experience necessary (with a salary that no experienced draftsman would have even considered).  I applied and was immediately hired.

Peden was one of the largest steel service centers in the world and it had just purchased a new toy, a plasma cutter, capable of cutting steel plate up to eight inches thick.  Called the ‘Dragon’, it could cut out eight irregular shapes at the same time with the aid of an ‘electric eye’ that would trace patterns drawn on paper.  My job was to create the patterns.

Peden had just landed a new account with a company that manufactured truck trailers requiring a lot of custom parts.  I met with the designer at the truck company, along with the manufacturer of the Dragon, and we agreed on a scale for the drawings, pencil width, darkness, and so forth. 

Prior to my being hired, Peden had gone to an industrial engineering supply house and bought an outrageous amount of drafting supplies.  Besides a huge desk, I had more equipment than I knew what to do with—far more supplies than found at the university drafting labs.  Since the desk was so large, they had given me a corner of the office used by the secretary of the company’s president.

Though the Dragon needed only a top view, I went ahead and carefully prepared the orthographic drawings like I had been taught at the university, with front, top, and side views and a 3-D representation of the finished piece.  Every line and all the angles were measured and remeasured to be within the design specs of the engineer form the trailer company provided.  In the bottom right of the drawing, I carefully labeled the part number, the company name, and the name of the distinguished draftsman who had created such a beautiful drawing.

Each drawing was a masterpiece, if for no other reason than I made each drawing a dozen times.  The people who had hired me had no idea how long it took to create one of those drawings, and had vastly overestimated how long it would take me to do the work.  At most, they needed two new drawings a day—which took less than a half hour each, so the rest of the day I worked on my homework, and tried my best to look busy by redoing previous drawings. 

The company president, going in and out of his secretary’s office, saw me at least a dozen times a day, and I was determined not to look idle.  This was probably a waste of time, since I later learned the man was an idiot, and it became rather obvious that his secretary had not been hired for her typing skills.  Unless I was on fire (and maybe, even if I was), he wasn’t going to be looking at me as he passed through that office.

Some of the more interesting parts I drew up in ink, often mailing a copy back to the designer at the trailer company, who was delighted to have them and further claimed that the finished parts were exactly as needed:  the Dragon had cut all of the parts within his specifications.

One day, after finishing a drawing for a new part, I decided to hand deliver it to the fabricating shop—partly to waste time, but also partly because I hoped to actually see the massive Dragon cutting multiple parts out of two-inch thick steel.  Donning the obligatory hard hat, I searched for the shop foreman in the massive warehouse, discovering that he was supervising the loading of the plate steel onto the cutting bed of the Dragon.

Correctly guessing that I wanted to see the machine in operation, he waved at me to follow him into his office.  As he took off his gloves, he accepted my newest work of art and help it up to the light to admire it.

“Nice drawing,” he said.  Then, using a ruler as a straight edge, he roughly tore off the bottom left corner containing the top view of the trailer part, stuffing the rest of the drawing into a trash can.  Then using a large black marker, he quickly traced around the outside of my carefully drawn lines, making each of them about an eighth of an inch wide.  My carefully executed drawing now looked like something hastily inked by a child.

Seeing the startled look on my face, he explained.  “The electric eye on that beast gets covered with dust and it can’t follow the lines unless you make them wider.”

“What about the accuracy of the cuts?” I asked.

“Oh, the kerf loss from the torches is a little more than a quarter of an inch, so they always request the parts bigger than needed, then machine them down.”

That was the day that I learned something they weren’t teaching me in college—The Three Rules of Engineering, at least as practiced in a steel fabricating shop:

         1.  Bash to form.
         2.  File to fit.
         3.  Paint to cover.

Realizing that my job was in severe peril, I began searching for a new home at Peden.  As it happened, just outside the president’s office was the structural steel department.  One of the salesmen was in the hospital for a few weeks and his phone rang endlessly.  Uninvited, I moved to his desk and started answering the phone, writing down messages while I studied all the paperwork he had left on his desk.  Within a few days, I began writing up orders, and after two weeks, I was the department’s newest salesman.  I never sat at that drafting table again.

It has been almost half a century since I got a salary for being a draftsman, though I still have a drafting board, my T-square is still straight, and I still know how to make truly accurate drawings.  If you ever need an accurate blueprint, I’ll be happy to scribble something on a piece of paper with a black marker for you.  You’ll have to bring your own Dragon.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of us wind up doing things we didn't train for originally. I started out with a BA in English-Communications, taught elementary school for a few years, worked for Brown and Root building power plants (including a fascinating job dusting the inside of the containment vessel of a nuclear power plant) and then I became a recreation therapist, equestrian therapist, PR guy, development officer for nonprofits, day care director, grant-writer, nonprofit startup consultant and eventually wound up writing for a living in semi-retirement and taking care of a disabled wife. The word career is closely related to careen which describes the path marked out in my employment history pretty well.

    Marshall MacLuhan was right when he said, "The future of work consists of learning a living." I found as I got older, no one wanted to hire me because my resume' was too interesting and I was going to screw up their health insurance. So I had to keep reinventing myself and discovering new ways to make a living.

    To be frank, it's kind of exhausting to do that, but I am entirely unsuited to union jobs or Walmart, so I just make up things to do. Unfortunately, I appear to be resistant to making big tubs full of money. But I still like Mondays, so there is that.