My first job was designing pharmaceutical packaging and filling equipment. You’ve probably seen videos of machines like these. A conveyer of little vials speeds along on a conveyor and there’s machines which fill them up while they’re moving then other machines which pick them up and put them on trays for shipping. Needless to say, this is a coordinated dance which has to be bulletproof, fast, and repeatable.

Failure and Iteration
Failure and Iteration. Matching everything takes work.

What made my job tough was that most of what we did was driven off of cams and had to match the cycle times of the production process. Programming in code would be much easier, I needed to build shapes. As the guy designing the cams, I needed to make it all work smoothly. In the first set of cams I did, I made an assumption about the cycle of the machine and thought I could tweak it. I’d love to say that I noticed it immediately when we tested them, but I didn’t. I hadn’t accounted for something in the machining of he cam and it wouldn’t even turn on the machine.

How not to make a cam.
That says it all: How not to make a cam. The important thing is that I found many right ways to make cams.

After I fixed THAT, then I noticed that I had a timing issue. Everything worked overall, but my speed was timed over 96% of the cycle.¬†Precision-wise, it wouldn’t work but I knew exactly what I’d done wrong and how to fix it. We had to take a video of it then for a show, then I went back to my computer and designed it right. I’d figured out a process which would work on all the rest of the work I needed to do.

Soon after I did that, we had a customer send a machine back. It had been beating itself to death with very jerky motions and was interrupting their production stream. We’d been sending someone there to do repairs every couple weeks and it was getting to be expensive for everybody. The machine had been built before I got my job so I had to interpret the design and engineer a new set of cams to fix the problem for good.

When the¬†representatives of the pharmaceutical factory who owned the machine came to inspect it, they expected a permanent fix to their problem. Our VP put one of the small vials on the machine and started it. Before they sent it back, the little bottle would have gone flying. Now it barely moved as the packaging equipment moved at full speed. Everyone smiled and one of their engineers came over to me. He mentioned seeing that video of the mistimed machine and we talked about how I had redesigned their equipment’s movement.

That extra discussion of how the design process evolved actually gave our customer more confidence in the solution. It was a clear path of progress and the outcome was a far better solution. The failures were fast and the next evolution was better than what came before it. Honest learning from experiences isn’t a new thing. It’s almost always appreciated and gets you to a place you couldn’t simply start from.


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