Not Now, Dear

I’m sure every wife feels it. The pang of guilt when we say “no” to our husbands. It happened to me the other night, as Justin and I were laying in bed. He rolled to his side, and looked at me with hopeful, almost expectant eyes. A gentle smile was on his lips. After he’d asked the question, I sighed and closed my eyes as the wave of guilt washed over me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t think now is the right time to buy another machine tool for the shop.”

I could tell he was disappointed, so I tried valiantly to support my response with reason so I didn’t appear too callous. I reminded him that in the past 10 months, he’d purchased a Schaublin lathe, a Craftex mill, and a surface grinder, not to mention the various tooling additions needed to operate them. He’d also been generously gifted a tool and cutter grinder, and while that hadn’t cost any money, the time to drag these machines home and set them up for use was more than a small investment of precious hours. I also suggested that the point of owning these machines was not offer them a humble home in our garage, but rather to make something with them.

As Justin conceded that I might have a small point to support my argument, I opened my eyes. Surprised to see him getting dressed, I asked where he was going. “To make some chips,” he replied, as though it should be obvious. “These machines had better start earning their keep.”

Happy 150th Canada!

What better way to celebrate a long week-end in the summer than by making a delicious dessert to share with family and friends. I attached a 1 1/2″ spade bit to my husband’s mini-mill this morning to mix the base for this strawberry cheese-cake trifle. The bundt pan for the angel food-cake fit perfectly in the heat-treating oven, and the strawberries were firm enough to slice on the bandsaw (wipe the blade down first!)

Happy Birthday Canada! (and Happy Independence Day to our American friends to the south on Tuesday!)

Swarf in the Laundry

If you live with someone engaged in the home-shop machining hobby, and you are responsible for any domestic duties involving clothing, you have no doubt found swarf in the laundry. Just the other day, I shook out one of my husband’s sweaters he had worn in the shop, and a cute metal corkscrew resembling a tiny clock spring (no, my husband’s chips don’t always come off in perfect “9’s”) bounced on to the floor.  Our children thought it was cool.  We then examined a knit sweater that had been worn in the shop and noted several metal chips embedded in the weaves.  The next 15 minutes were spent scouring the house for magnets to see if we could pick-up the sweater.  It didn’t work, but the exercise ranked higher than our children’s 1 hour allotted TV time for the day.

I could start to nag at my husband for all the chips he is tracking in to the house via socks, sweaters and hair, but have thought better of it.  I have observed that the machining hobby has provided an interesting (and even productive) outlet for my husband’s creative energies and stress, while also providing many learning opportunities for our children, and even myself.

The video documentation of this hobby and its results via YouTube has also provided interesting learning opportunities for our family.  Its cute to watch the children excitedly bring other family members and friends to the computer screen to show them what Daddy is working on in the shop right now.  Our son has even started making his own videos with his V-Tech video camera of his Lego constructions.  This has been a great lesson to my husband and I to never underestimate the impact you’re having on those little eyes watching you.

Yes, it would be nice if I could park my car in the garage and Band-Aids weren’t a standard weekly grocery item.  But for all its benefits, I guess I’ll put up with the swarf in the laundry.
Megan is the wife of Justin.  She has the pleasure and the pain of dealing with a manufacturing gearhead on a daily basis.

Terrible Design 101

Recently I had to fix a toy for the new addition in the family.  It was a car seat toy.  The toy is suppose to play a song when you push the dog’s nose.  We’ve had this toy for a few years and all it needed was a new battery.  I made a short video going through what I needed to do to change the battery.

I hate tamper proof screws.  The only point to them is to either sell more tools, or force people to throw stuff out.  They don’t keep people out.  People who want to get in will get in, and people who don’t want to will not.  And keeping people out of products so they can’t change batteries doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.  Then there is the problem of end of life.  How many people would just chuck this item into the garbage?

End users or consumers should always be able to remove and replace batteries without the need for specialty tools so they can remove the batteries before they dispose of the device, or prolong the life of the device.  Why is this such a big deal?  Devices with non removable batteries cannot be automatically processed by waste recycling facilities (because these facilities grind up the entire device – which would cause major issues with batteries).  This forces these types of devices to be shipped overseas where low cost labour disassembles them.  Often kids are doing this work, and the waste is not disposed of properly.

Apple is one major manufacturer that insists on fully enclosed non removable batteries.  This is terrible, but it helps their agenda: sell more devices or sell more over priced service.  Numerous reasons are given for built in batteries in small electronic devices, but in reality they don’t have any merit.  I have a inexpensive ($100) Android phone with a removable battery and it works great.  And if the battery needs to be replaced, I don’t even need any tools to replace it.   And when the device fails I can remove the battery and send them to appropriate recycling facilities, instead of across the globe.

We really have to stop designing for the dump and quickest assembly, and start designing for service and longevity.

What is a technologist?

Often in conversations with people I’m asked what I do for a living.  I reply that I am an engineering technologist.  Many times a puzzled look is given and the question “What is an engineering technologist?” follows.  Early in my work and studies I wasn’t sure either and I  usually stammered to explain that while I’m not quite an engineer I do engineering type work and near the end of it all I’m almost as puzzled as the person asking the question.  I really wanted to say I was an engineer because everybody knew what that meant, and knew the significance of it.

When I first started the program at McMaster to complete my degree, I was convinced that I wanted to be an engineer, and the Bachelor of Technology program was the quickest way to get my degree and pursue the required Professional Engineering challenge exams to get my designation.

Now that I’m almost finished the engineering technology program at McMaster University and preparing to take my Masters of Engineering, I’ve realized what being an engineering technologist is and the significant value an engineering technologist brings to the table.

Most traditional engineering programs have a significant focus on mathematics, and emphasizes the derivation of mathematical models to describe engineering phenomenon.  They focus on creating mathematical models.  The engineering technologist focuses on making known mathematical models work to solve a problem.  Engineering technologists sacrifice some of the higher mathematics to practical lab time.  This is to observe mathematical models in action.  Engineering technologists also have a greater emphasis placed on work experience as part of their academic training.  Nearly all engineering technologists are required (in Canada anyway) to complete some form of work placement as a graduating requirement.  Engineering technologists with a Bachelor’s degree (Bachelor in Technology) also are accepted into higher level academic programs, including masters programs and doctorate programs.


(Source McMaster University

Mark French, an associate professor at Purdue ( gives an interesting look into engineering technology in The Engineering Commons Podcast episode 59.  It is well worth listening to.

(You can also download it here, and be sure to subscribe to a very interesting podcast!:

In the working world, the lines are very blended between the 2 professions.  It has been my experience that the broader approach to learning in a technology program leads many engineering technologists into management roles, especially interdisciplinary management such as Operations Management.  This is the reason McMaster’s Bachelor of Technology program puts a heavy emphasis on traditional business type courses.  Business courses make up almost 30% of their degree completion program.

Here is a graph that depicts the similarities, and some of the differences in the working world:


(Chart above from the American Society for Mechanical Engineers.)

An area where engineering and engineering technology differs significantly is the area of public liability.  Generally engineering technologists are not permitted to take public liability for their work, although this has slowly been changing.  If there is government legislation requiring public liability to be accounted for (use of the stamp), engineering technologists are required to have their work reviewed by a professional engineer.

I seriously enjoy engineering technology and I have been significantly blessed in my career – both in school and at work.  Engineering technology is a great mix of hands on and theoretical.   It is a field where you take something off the whiteboard and live it out on the shop floor.  As an engineering technologist I can design a part (sometimes I may have to ask an engineer to verify some of my work – but that’s a good practice anyway), apply the appropriate manufacturing process, actually do the process, and observe the end result.  It is a full understanding of an entire concept to completion process – a big picture approach.

So when somebody asks me what I do, I say I am an engineering technologist.  What is an engineering technologist?  Let’s go for a walk, and I’ll show you what I do.  It’s easier than trying to explain it.  I find the hands on approach emphasizing the end result easier for everyone to relate to.

Augmented Reality is Already Here and Has Been for a Long Time

After finishing up my exams, I managed to get my 1970 Volkswagen Beetle out for a number of drives with the family while enjoying what’s left of summer.  I really like driving my Beetle.  It is a true analog experience.  vwbugThe cable throttle is linear and responds to my inputs as I would expect.  The clutch is also moved by cable and gives excellent feedback as to when it is about to engage.   The lack of electric power steering (or any power steering for that matter) gives good feedback to the road conditions.  The brake pedal requires a high amount of force, but braking is linear in response.

Lately there has been much talk of augmented and virtual reality regarding how it is going to change the way we live.  But I have some news for you: it is already here and it is frequently used in our cars.  For example,  since 2012 the Volkswagen GTI utilizes something called the Soundaktor (no – I’m not making that up! –!).  The Soundaktor produces artificial engine noises to ‘enhance’ the driving experience.  Volkswagen isn’t only company using electronics to create artificial sound; numerous other car manufactures use the car’s entertainment unit.

Nearly all new cars today (in North America) utilize throttle by wire: a sensor in the throttle pedal communicates with a computer which turns the throttle plate.  This allows manufactures to program how they want the accelerator to respond, and it’s the reason you’ll find some cars you drive are very sensitive on the throttle response and others more relaxed.   Electronic stability control is required by law ( since 2012.  In these systems microprocessors change the response of the throttle and braking system (or our human inputs) to try to maintain control of the vehicle if it senses wheel slippage or other out of control movements.  There are numerous other examples of computers used to alter or influence the actual response of a system – regardless of human input.

If your Soundaktor is always pumping in simulated sound into your car, how do you know what your car really should sound like?  What happens if you end up in a situation where the programmed routine isn’t sufficient for the situation you find yourself in?  This constant surge forward to digitize our analog world unfortunately warps our sense of who we are, what we are capable of, and warps the physical world that we live in.

Technology that augments reality and helps us do things better is not always a bad thing and allows us to do things we couldn’t do on our own; however operating in a true analog world is also a skill that is very important to develop, maintain, and is a fundamental part of who we are.  This is why it is so important for kids to have play time outside.

It’s why I have a manual lathe, manual mill, and 1940s shaper in the garage, and why I really like driving my Volkswagen Beetle.  I guess it is my play time outside.

The Amateur’s Lathe

LH Sparey’s Amateur’s Lathe is on my  ‘must read’ list for not only anyone interested in home shop machining, but also anyone interested or studying mechanical or manufacturing engineering.  I think that the book is so good that it should be a mandatory part of a first year engineering course.


Even though the publishing of this book is seriously showing its age (the drawings, typing and photographs could be updated in quality), the content is very very good.  Sparey approaches the information within the constraint of doing work on one piece of equipment: a small workshop lathe.  So many teach that the lathe is only for turning work, such as turning small shafts or bushings.

The reason I like the book so much is because it encourages you to think outside of the box.  It helps develop the skill of trying to complete a project using the tools at your disposal.  It teaches one of my favorite words: ingenuity.  “Ingenuity is the quality of being clever, original, and inventive, often in the process of applying ideas to solve problems or meet challenges. Ingenuity (Ingenium) is the root Latin word for engineering.”  Ingenuity is solving a problem within the constraints you are placed in.  And remember constraints produce good design.

Ingenuity is the skill we desperately need in engineering.  Engineers today are really good at math, but math is only one tool to solve a problem.  At some point we have to move from the theoretical to the practical.  I remember  one of my professors (a mathematician / engineer) jokingly told me that solving the problem is the important part – you can find any idiot to do the math.  He was joking, and wasn’t downplaying the importance of mathematics, but rather highlighting the importance of solving the problem.

So if you are a mechanical or manufacturing engineer – read the book to get an interesting insight to what a small bench lathe can really do – while actually learning how to use a lathe.  If you are someone working in your shop the book has excellent insight and information to get those machining projects done you think you don’t have enough tools to do.

It’s on Amazon here.  Don’t let the bad reviews fool you – you have to read the book and think not just look at the pictures.


Under the Dome

The pollution problems facing countries like China are not getting the publicity in the main stream media they deserve.  Below is an excellent documentary detailing the problems from a first hand account.  The documentary is long – over 1 hour, but I highly recommend you view it – I consider it a must watch.  At the very least those involved in making company purchasing decisions for goods coming out of China should review their suppliers.


My Favorite Tool

It’s a bit of a running joke in my mechanical family that you can fix anything with a hammer.  We laugh, but seriously, could you live without a good hammer?  A hammer is an indispensable tool – I use them every day at work and in the shop. In fact I use multiple hammers in a day.

Here is my favorite hammer that I use in the shop while machining:thebasher

Its a zinc cast hammer made by Forest City Castings in Canada.  I use this hammer pretty much exclusively while doing setups, and I love it.  It’s also the first hammer that I’ve ever used that has instructions on the handle.

All kidding aside, the reason I like this hammer so much is because it is made in Canada at a price that you can afford, and is a quality product.  Disclaimer: I have ‘off shore’ tools in my shop and I don’t want to come across as being a hypocrite.  The ‘off shore’ tools in my shop are there because I couldn’t find tools made here that were reasonably affordable (new) or in reasonable used condition (used).  I would have gladly paid more money for my mini mill if I could get a made in North America one.  The reality is if you want a mini mill you don’t have much choice.

Some people say we just can’t compete with countries like China.  Companies like Apple routinely tell us that they couldn’t function without countries like China (read we need shareholder value on the back of inexpensive labour and lax environmental laws).  I beg to differ because every time I’m setting up in my mill or shaper I’m using my affordable, Canadian made, zinc cast hammer – which is arguably a commodity product.  It is made by a great company that is helping its community by providing good, honest jobs.  I’m reminded that yes we can effectively manufacturing  things here, and yes we can compete with countries like China while treating the worker and environment  with the respect and dignity they deserve.

So this hammer is inspiration for me to try and make a difference in the manufacturing world I work and live in.  It reminds me everyday that a good product at a reasonable price is possible to be sustainably made right where I live.

If you want one of these hammers, (I think they make them in aluminum and zinc) send me an email and I’ll try to get you one as I don’t think you can purchase them online.