Mr. Wake

Are you understand?

Location: Kamakura, Kanagawa, Japan

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Wresting with the nutter

This is the second week of factory work. Smashing metal leaves the mind with plenty of excess capacity with which to plan what I'm going to write. But at the end of the day every day last week was pretty much the same. Smash that metal. For some reason almost all the other smashers are Peruvian.

Today was my second day away from the press section and in the assembly section where two or more smashed parts are burned together. There are robots in the assembly section, but I didn't get to work with them. For some reason almost all the robot minders are Chinese. The robots make frames for dashboards. They are long tubes with all manner of metal parts sticking out from them. The robot minder puts the tube and some doodads into special little slots and grabbers. When the robots sense that the grabbers are full a black plastic curtain descents that the robots may work unseen. If you were to watch the dance of the robots your eyes would be burned from their very sockets. Actually, this is not far from the truth. Each hand of the robots has a single finger, and each finder is an arc welder. So if you spend all day watching the robots, you'll fry an orb, hence the black screen. If you only spend a few mintues you can look through the yellow plastic around back. There are 5 robots, each one is a pair of arms the size of an elephant trunk. It's impossible to watch them and not imagine that they really know what they are doing. They move quickly to the welding point, and then with care as their flame burns the metal. They stay out of each other's way. And while the next part is being loaded they rectract into a kind of resting position. But like I said, I didn't get to work with them.

I had a bin of doodads, each with plenty of holes, but all with a complete lack of nuts. And so I stood before the nutter. The nutter is a violent beast about as big as an upright piano turned on one side. There's a pair of large vertal pinchers in front, the lower one has a spike about as big as a pencil point. Every ounce of this contraption is dedicated to plopping a nut on the spike and heating it to a million degrees. I get nervous around machines that are described with words like "spike", "pincers", "million degrees", and "high voltage" (it uses a lot of electricity). You have to HOLD the doodad on the spike and hit a foot pedal. A probe flys out and deposits a single nut around the spike, then the pinchers close and the nut is fused to the doodad with a shower of sparks. The nut comes out of this experience a slightly different color. Remember, I'm holding this thing with my hands.

Sometimes, just often enough to make me nervous EVERY time, the nut would bounce off the spike and the pincher would close on the naked, nutless, steel. And nothing would happen. Somehow the nutter knows when there is no nut, and it shuts off the juice. But then it sulks and won't work again. The first time I called the boss over, and he ducked around to the back of the machine and did something. Worked again. About thirty minutes later I lost another nut, and had to go find him. Same deal. On the fouth time I watched what he did. He ducked around and reached through some cables and pressed a button, but I think he told me not to mess with this on my own. When it happened again, I couldn't find my boss, but another guy of equal rank was there. He played around in back, showed me the button and said, "Just hit this two times." Still made me nervous. Next time I blew a nut I looked for the boss but couldn't find him again. The Chinese guy next to me pointed to the magic button and said, "You hit that three times." So I did. And the nutter shook off its funk and once again began to nut. I did that about 10 times. But I was still nervous messing with this stuff, and I didn't want my boss to catch me. Next time my nut bounced I called the boss over. He realized I was having trouble so he said, "I'll show you what to do. See this button? Press it four times." I was having to press it every 15 minutes, which was really annoying because I had to duck under some cables, squat on the floor, take off my gloves, reach in under some stuff to get to it. The boss realized what a pain this was, and got a guy over to fix it. Took about 3 minutes. The nut probe was too far from the spike, leaving a space big enough to allow nut-slippage. With that fixed, I was able to nut merrily till lunchtime.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Day of Smashing

My J class ended so I’ve been working full time at the factory for the last two days. Also, I’ve moved on from the quality check room to working on the Factory Floor.

Yesterday: Work starts at 8:00, so Papa-san and I arrived at 7:30. Had a little video meeting with Shacho. He’s in the Shirakawa factory. Then Kojocho (his title. It means “Factory Manager”) brought me to the presses. I was face to face with the Aida 45. It’s about as big a two refrigerators with one fridge laid across the top. It’s the smallest of our presses but still 45 tons of delicious smashing power. Fortunately there were a few boxes of items the desperately needed smashing nearby, so I didn’t have to just start on whatever I could get my hands on. The boxes contained thousands of little doodads about 5 inches long that HAD NO HOLES IN THEM, FORSOOTH! Thank goodness me and the Aida 45 were there to give them what for. The little doodads wished they’d never been born, or maybe they just wished they’d been born with holes already in them. But before I could start my orgy of smashing we had to install the die.

The die is about as big as a Thanksgiving turkey with a thick rectangular base and a tick rectangular top and a bunch of muckimuck in the middle. You could carry it if you REALLY wanted to, but we got a forklift guy to move it to the press. Forklift guys are always buzzing all over the factory. If you need one for something you can give them a little wave like you’re asking for the check, and he’ll buzz on by. Somehow I never have to tell them what I need done. They always just do it. The die bolts into the machine it a way that the top half will smash into the bottom half.

With the press in the “up” position you stick a doodad onto the die. They are literally made for each other, so it’s a perfect fit. You could put it in wrong if you wanted to, but they make it pretty easy to do right. Then smash away. This is the part where you want to keep track of where your fingers are. Again, they make it easy to do this. The press will smash only when two buttons are pressed simultaneously. So you need both hands to work it. Also, there is an array of electric eyes in front of the smash zone, and if anything breaks the beam, all smashing ceases. Smashed doodads are removed from the die by hand and placed in a box to the side. The box, by the way, when full of doodads, is too heavy to lift.

Smashing continued apace until 10:00am. At 10:00 a chime sounds the break time, and all smashing must STOP. The factory becomes quiet and everyone wanders around, smokes, and/or gets a coffee. At 10:10am a chime sounds that smashing is to resume, and it does with gusto.

A chime sounds at noon to signal lunch. The factory grows quiet again as works file to the lunch room. Lunch is a Japanese-style lunch box. They are prepared offsite and brought in. The lunchbox has little compartments with pickled vegetables, fried pork or fish, shredded cabbage, and some other morsels that I can’t identify. The lunch room has big windows that overlook the surrounding farmland and Mount Fuji, misty and huge in the distance. People finish eating around 12:15, but are not allowed to get back to work until lunch is over. They dramatically do not work. One guy slept in a forklift. Many wander around. Two girls sat across from each other in the office and said absolutely nothing to each other. They just stared at the floor. I have a hard time being without the internet for 20 straight minutes, so I logged in from my desk. Most workers don’t have a computer, but I do because I will someday use it.

At 12:40 a “get ready” chime sounds, five minutes later the “back to work” chime sounds, and the heavy sounds of tortured sheet metal instantly fill the air. Chimes bracket another ten minute break at 3:00, and announce the end of the smashing day at 5:00. Thusly, the day is broken into 4 2-hour chunks. When the chimes sound no one just finishes this batch and then takes their break/heads home. When the chimes sound people nearly drop what their doing to stop smashing.

At the end of the day I had punched two holes in each of 2,550 doodads. I have no idea what these little guys are for, but I sleep easy with the knowledge that they can all be bolted to something. My body was sore from standing on a hard floor in crappy shoes for 7 hours. Everything about the shoes is crappy except for the toes, which are encased in steel. I was also tired from stooping to see inside the die, as the machine is of course a little low from me.