I once designed a computer monitoring product in the closet of my bedroom. The closet was like the one pictured above but substituted with my beautiful wife instead of this pretty lady. The product was called Callback/3000, kind of like that satirical tv show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” MST3K premiered on November 24, 1988. My product premiered in the early 1980s!
The “3000” in my product’s name stood for HP-3000, the minicomputer manufactured and marketed during those years. I needed to come out with version 2 of my product. It was going to be a quantum leap forward. btw – Quantum Leap, the TV show premiered on March 25, 1989. Are you seeing a trend? The 1980s were a veritable cornucopia of new technologies and corny TV shows?
You never know what will tip the scale in your favor. Today’s talk is about a presentation I did that won the business because of technical problems.
Hello and welcome to my podcast. Today my talk is about when trouble won the business!
When I was the Product Manager for a software company, we received an invitation to demonstrate our product to a client. We had a new version of our flagship product, and it was hosted on our servers, instead of being installed on their servers, and the product was subscription-based instead of a perpetual license.
This was all very leading edge 15 years ago.
Microsoft had reviewed our architecture. Gartner interviewed us and published an article about our innovative approach. I spoke at a Gartner conference about our product. We had worked with a person from Microsoft that was one of the original architects for Microsoft Outlook. I was invited to Microsoft’s launch of their new line of products and posed with Steve Ballmer for a photo-op.
It was all very exciting. But there were many quality problems, technical problems, and business problems that still needed to be resolved when we did our presentation. But we received a blessing in disguise.
A small team of us flew on our company’s private jet to the client’s site. We had decided to hold the presentation and demo in the client’s conference room. We had explained how we would demonstrate our product and had confirmed that they had adequate Internet bandwidth.
When we arrived, our client told us that so many people wanted to see the demo that the event had been moved to a local hotel. I was worried.
The first part of our presentation was the typical PowerPoint. Our client asked a few questions but just wanted us to move to the demo; this fell on my shoulders.
I had only had a few minutes to verify that I had Internet access since our client and we had moved, en mass, from the conference room to the hotel. Now came the decisive moment…and we failed.
The demo kept timing out and dropping the login session. It was a nightmare. Finally, the lead technical person and I started collaborating to solve the problem. It was simple. The hotel had horrid Internet.
We thought the “easy” solution was to just move back to the client’s conference room, so we all packed up our stuff and went to the conference room.
Their tech plugged their computer into the network, and I tried to sign in. No luck. The tech and I picked ideas. We tried several things, but we could not reach our demo site. Finally, the tech remembered that their Internet access was blocked for web access. They used the internet to transfer files and such.
It took another department to make the firewall change. In our present world, firewall changes aren’t made ‘on-the-fly’ and usually take days to get all of the signoffs needed to facilitate the change. But back then, it took about 45 minutes.
Finally, we were ready to begin our demo, but the allotted time had almost run out. After I verified that the demo was mostly working, our salesperson took over and did a splendid job considering the state of our product and the client’s unstable Internet.
A few weeks later we learned that we won the business, not because they were impressed with the presentation or the demo but because they saw how well we had all worked together, and that’s what they based their decision on.
I learned to never assume that we’d lost a sale just because of some problems during a presentation. The most important goal of a sales presentation is to build a relationship with a prospective client and not to muscle through a lengthy slide deck.
My talk today is about the time I spent a day on top of a full-web press.
When I owned an R&D and manufacturing company, I was asked to build a tension control for chill-rolls on Harris web presses. My solution was radical.
# Chill Roll Control
Thank you for selecting my podcast today. My talk today is about the time I spent a day on top of a full-web press.
When I owned an R&D and manufacturing company, I was asked to build a tension control for chill-rolls on Harris web presses.
Here’s some background: A web press uses large rolls of blank paper, each weighing perhaps as much as a ton. As the paper is unspooled, it travels across many rollers. These rollers are cylinders of either steel or synthetic rubber, and they are as wide as the printing press and are used to keep the paper accurately tracking through the entire process of printing, drying, chilling, and sheeting.
The fundamental challenge for a high-speed web press is to take low moisture paper, lightly stretch it as it comes off the roll of paper, and guide it through a series of individual presses. Each press applies a single color, and the ink causes the paper to deform slightly. Too much tension or too little, and you end up with an expensive mess.
One of the challenges is that the paper, itself, does not belong to the printing company. The customer supplies an exact amount. If too much paper is wasted, then the printing company is in a bind.
Most web presses are four-color presses. The four colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, commonly known as CMYK. One-color is used for each press. This approach enables the web press to print “full color” images. The press I’m talking about today printed Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, and other full-color magazines.
Some web presses have additional presses to do such things as making the paper glossy by applying a coating.
As the paper passes through each press, the paper gains moisture and chemicals, which make the paper slightly deform. Air turbulence is also a problem since the presses run at approximately 400 feet per minute to 500 feet per minute (which is about fifty thousand 8.5 by 11-inch sheets per hour).
When the paper passes through the last press, it goes into a drier unit. The drier looks and works like a pizza oven. The drier dries the ink and evaporates the moister. However, the ink still isn’t stable and is easily smeared. So, when the paper leaves the drier, it goes through a set of chill rolls, and this is where I come in.
Chill rolls are large cylinders with water pumped through them to keep them ‘cold.’ The intent is to remove as much elasticity from the paper as possible and permanently ‘set’ the ink.
The paper is usually fed to a circular ‘sheeter,’ which is a rotating cylinder with metal shear protruding from it. There are different designs for sheeters. Some use a guillotine approach which requires the metal shears to be set at an angle since the paper is moving as it is cut. It’s mesmerizing to watch the rotating sheeter cut the wide paper and carefully land it on a stacker that gathers the sheeting together for the magazine.
So, the tension of the paper between the chill rolls and the sheeter is critical to producing sheets that are cut on the trim lines and will be cut so the sheets can go through the binders and be formed into a magazine. That tension is difficult to manage because the paper constantly varies in weight – how much ink – and elasticity because of moister and skew because of different tensions on the paper from one edge to the other edge.
The traditional way to control chill roll was based on analog signals. The approach was to install a roller from one side of the press to the other side. The roller was fitted with tension sensors attached to each end of the roll. These sensors would send an analog signal to an A/D converter and then a PID controller, directly controlling the chill roll motor.
This approach seems reasonable, but tension gauges are affected by temperature and constant stress. The analog signals are very low voltages, and temperature variations affect the accuracy of the tension signals. And, of course, the momentum of large chill rolls filled with water cause a lag time between when the speed control received a correction signal and when the chill roll slowed or sped up. These tension adjustments were always small, so the tension sensors operated within a tiny segment of its tension sensor’s designed range. These control challenges were exacerbated because the temperature of the drier is regularly changed.
Because of these problems, I took a very different approach. The way I solved this problem was to install a harmonic gearbox on the chill roll motor. Instead of using tension sensors, I installed optical rotary encoders on the chill and pincher rolls.
I calibrated the chill roll’s rotation angle to the pincher rolls’ rotation angle when the paper was at zero tension – not sagging or tight. Then when the web press ran, my single-board computer read both encoders, calculated the angular difference, which was due to too much or too little tension. That differential controlled a stepper motor connected to the harmonic gearbox, thereby adjusting the angular ratio between the chill roll and pincher roll to achieve zero tension. Greater or lesser tension could be dialed in.
The solution worked like a dream. The encoders didn’t suffer from low voltage signals or the need for regularly calibrating the tension sensors.
The voltage signal variations due to temperature changes did not affect the encoders since the encoders were digital. Also, the chill roll speed didn’t suffer from over-shoot or lag in speed adjustments. The speed inaccuracy was eliminated because the harmonic gearbox adjusted the gear ratio while isolating the ‘strength’ of the electric motor from speed changes.
The downside was that the chill roll control was installed at the highest point of the web press and perpendicular to the drier’s end. So, while I was perched on the small platform, it felt like being inside of a pizza oven. During the chill roll control installation, I spent about 12 hours up there baking like a thick crust, Chicago-style pizza.
Due to the contortion of my body to gain access to the electrical enclosure, when I finished, I couldn’t walk down the ladder. It took about ten minutes to move my body correctly, but it was sweet when it all came together.
By the way, I only did the electronics and programming. A separate company did all of the mechanical engineerings. They also built and installed the sheeter. The system worked so well that a business sprung up replacing the OEM Harris chill roll controls with mine.
It was a fun project and injected some needed funds into my company.
I once was called on to replace a 5 hp motor DC motor. Easy-peasy, right? At that time, I worked for a company that had a polyethylene, blown-film plastics factory. It was attached to the corporate R&D lab where I worked. Whether it was for a bet or what, I don’t know, but I was assigned the task to replace a 5-hp, DC motor on a machine in the factor. That was unusual but no problem.
What they say about carpet and concrete is true. If you walk on carpet your work-life is vastly different from jobs on concrete. It was summertime. The factory, of course, had no air conditioning. Air conditioning was for people that walked on carpet.
So, the moment I opened the door to the factory I immediately thought of Dante’s Vestibule of hell, the one with the gate that bears an inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
My first experience with debilitating heat was when I was given a project to install a wireless language lab in school buses. This was an experiment. A school board wanted to try to create a way for kids that had very long commutes to school to officially fulfill one class.
Instead of high school kids wasting time in a bus for two hours each day, they could learn a language and get credit for it. I thought it was a great idea. I just didn’t appreciate how difficult it would be to make their vision a reality.
Today’s podcast is about the first guitar pedal I built. If you’ve ever watched a rock concert, you may have noticed the lead guitar player using several foot-actuated devices to change the sound of their guitar. And, if you are old enough to have purchased the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, you may have noticed in the liner notes that Paul played “fuzz bass” on “Think for Yourself.” Paul firmly established the use of guitar pedals in rock music.
During the 1990s, I had built a large enough network of people that I could contract myself out for short-term programming jobs. One of the jobs was a six-month contract to help finish a call center for an electric company in Pineville, Louisiana. The application we developed for the customer service representatives (CSPs) was written using the PowerBuilder programming language. The interactive voice response (IVR) program was a commercial application that ran on an IBM AS400. And some single-purpose apps were a mix of commercial software and custom software written in C++.
During the 1990s, I had built a large enough network of people that I could contract myself out for short-term programming jobs. One of the jobs was a six-month contract to help finish a call center for an electric company in Pineville, Louisiana. At that time, my family and I lived in Central Florida.
The application we developed for the customer service representatives (CSPs) was written using the PowerBuilder programming language. The interactive voice response (IVR) program was a commercial application that ran on an IBM AS400. And some single-purpose apps were a mix of commercial software and custom software written, I think, in C++.
It was a fascinating project. Our client was nervous. They were afraid of any negative experience their customers might experience. So, the client made sure that at least one senior CSR from each satellite office moved to Pineville. Our program used the ANI code (caller ID) and the IVR to route phone calls to “familiar voices” and pop up the customer’s account before the CSR answered the call.
“How do you know who I am?” “Are you spying on me?” Our client’s customers were cautious when it came to new technology. IVRs were not that common in the 1990s, so the CSRs received extensive training on answering their calls in a way that didn’t creep out the customer.
An odd aspect was that our client had us program the IVR to keep callers “in the system” for up to 45 minutes during the project’s start-up phase. This long wait-time was to prevent callers from flooding the new CSRs and the whole new call center. I’m sure they quickly shortened the time.
Since I lived in Florida and my job was in Louisiana, I’d get on the road at 5:00 am each week on Monday morning. I’d arrive at the Gainsville airport in time to catch the first commuter flight to Atlanta. I then ran through the airport to catch a flight from Atlanta to Houston, Texas. When the plane door opened, I’d burst out and run through that airport to catch a small commuter flight from Houston to Pineville, Louisiana.
That commuter flight was where all the team members gathered, so the whole team arrived in Pineville on the same flight. I was younger then, but I was dog-tired when it was time for me to start work!
Our manager set the project up for all of us to began work at 11:00 am on Monday and worked until 5:00 pm on Thursday. So, by 3:00 pm on Thursday, all work wound down as each of us struggled with airlines to get the connections we needed to get back home. When (and if) I made it home, I had a three-day weekend. That was nice.
We had keys to the office in which we worked. So, our work week was from 6 am until as late as we could all hold out. This weird schedule worked well for our client and us. For our client, we weren’t “underfoot” all week long. And for us, with our compressed work schedule, we accomplished a lot because we were all entirely focused on work.
During the week, we all stayed at the finest hotel in Pineville. It was well over 100 years old, and the rooms were all pretty much as they’d originally been built, except the plumbing, which had gone through several upgrades.
The hotel was spotlessly clean. The staff was as courteous and as professional as anyone could hope for. And as a bonus, they had coffee urns located in strategic places. Hands down, it was the best coffee I’ve ever had, and I’ve drunk a lot of coffee in nearly every part of the world.
As a team, we had some fun during the project. I knew several of the people from previous projects I’d done, so, once a week, we’d all go to a restaurant downtown that had amazing bar-b-que and out-of-this-world bread pudding. I kid you not; by noon, people would be in a line out the door and down the sidewalk.
Anyway. Since I was brought in to help finish the project, I stepped into a challenging situation. The most difficult bugs were still in the system, and more functionality still needed to be developed, and our client had a hard cutover date.
The client was shutting down their satellite offices and consolidating all of their CSRs in Pineville. Some long-term employees were moving to Pineville, and other employees were quitting or being let go. All of the telephone numbers were being rerouted to our telephony equipment. It was a high-stress project.
On the cutover date, calls from across the state of central Louisiana would be ringing in Pineville. Our project had to work, and it had to work by a specific date. Worst of all was that there were some things we just couldn’t test until the cutover. So it was nerve-wracking. What made it worse for me was that my whole team was leaving on Friday before the project went live on Saturday. Since I was just a contractor, I was left behind to deal with any issues and be the single neck to choke. Lucky me!!!
Thankfully, nearly everything worked, and the parts that didn’t were minor issues that we put on the post-implementation list. Since I was self-contracted, my contract ended when they went live. I flew home on my client’s expense account but arrived unemployed.
I did contract programming for many years. I enjoyed it because I could work like crazy for six months and then take a month off between contracts. However, after the dot-com bubble burst in 1995, it became more and more difficult for me to self-contract and get the high hourly rates I traditionally received. I gradually moved back to working projects through “head-hunters” and finally re-entered full-time employment. I am so thankful for my contracting years because I learned so much. I continually worked with new people who were at the top of their game, and I always used the latest technologies. It was the kind of thing that couldn’t last, I knew that, but I sure had fun while it lasted.
In the early 1980s, I led a fun project paid for by the state of Indiana. The intent was to create a synergy between academia and private-sector technology companies. These kinds of partnerships are very common today, but in the 1980s it was very bleeding-edge. The goal of the project was to create a computer program that would create customer-specific configurations based on every possible configuration of the company’s existing products. The hope was that most, if not all, customer needs could be satisfied by the CPU boards, memory boards, general I/O boards and so forth. All without having to build any customer-specific boards.
Every programming language has a set of standards prescribing how variable names, function names, class names, and so forth should be structured. For variable names, COBOL uses hyphens (-) and Pascal uses PascalCase. Some languages use camelCase and some use snake_case.
Today, I am walking you through what it took me to make an industrial product in the early 1980s. This is what I did for one of the most uncomplicated products I ever sold. It was an RS-232 to RS-422 converter. It just used a couple of integrated circuits, a few passive components (clamping diodes and capacitors), and a power supply.