Wednesday, October 26, 2011

This is why I love engineers!


Jonathan Palmer is the son of John and Sandy Palmer. Ok, so that may not mean a whole lot, unless you're in the business of building SUPER high resolution X-Y Plotters that don't just draw.... they CUT. That's right. Autometrix is the name of the company John and Sandy started about 20 years ago. Though Sandy is not writing software or out there with the mechanical/electrical engineers designing the next cool thing in making it easy to cut perfect patterns, as John says, she DID start that company... And I'd wager, she's been a big part of why it's still here.


But all that is merely setting for the birth, some I dunno, 24 years ago??? of Jonathan Palmer. He's the mechanical engineer who contacted me to produce their videos to address the badmouthing that's been coming from their envious competition. It was great fun!!!


So that picture you see up there... What you're looking at is what happens when you show up in a room of visionary engineers and say... "hey, you know, I've always wondered how hard it would be to build a.... {     }" It's no sooner that you've filled in that blank than you have them scribbling out on a napkin and firing up the drill press.


Autometrix, I must admit, has it all. Starting with a great group of people. Committed and focused, these are the people who change the world. John, for example, took an idea he'd had 20 years ago as a sailing enthusiast, and built a table that would make it easy to cut sails, very precisely and repeatedly. We're talking huge spinnakers and other big honkin' slabs of fabric meant to move a few tons through the water.

The company went through the typical growing pains and now with 500 Autometrix cutters in the world, their customers make the most ingenious things out of textiles, and alien materials... like composites, things that require something like a kajillion of an inch tolerance on their patterns. Aerospace, and hockey sticks, bullet-proof vests and bicycle rims (that look like massive frisbees, weigh a couple ounces, can take the Tour de France like its a short commute, and of course costs a couple thousand bucks for a set of wheels)... these are all industries that require unbelievable and delicate, or as John says, "perfect patterns".


Jonathan and I were thinking through how we'd approach some of these competitor objections. So we did what any smart defendant would do, we invited a few others to the party. Their customer service genius, Chris, Teri from marketing, and then Abe... or Joel... one of the two or both maybe? Identical twins who have built and serviced these machines since they were wee lads, identical twins, they. And I swear one of those guys really should grow his hair out so the rest of us don't keep going, "Hey...." And of course John Palmer, who loses sleep over the thought of sloppy patterns.


Here is an apparently typical thing one of their competitor's salesmen will say, "Oh that Autometrix machine is lightweight. And everyone knows that what you really want is a big burly WWII era tank-like thing to move a 2 ounce blade through nylon jacket material...." Uhhhh. Great thinking guys! Their tables (hey this is MY blog, I don't mind nameing them... the companies are Eastman and Gerber), are responsible for a 2 degree shift on the Earth's axes. Because like "everyone knows", to get the space shuttle into space, or for Greg Lamond to win the Tour, or to keep a Prius on the road, what you really want is big iron beams and huge motors to grind them along... NOT.


So there I was with this elegant lightweight machine that wears down fewer parts since there's no INERTIA (OK the more I think of Eastman and Gerber salesmen, the more I think they should go back to whatever sleazy thing they were doing before trying to convince good old fashioned entrepreneurs and textile giants that a fat man doing pull ups can compete with a zero-body-fat trained athlete. I should point out that is a "metaphor" in case one of their engineers is out Googling their name and this blog shows up....)


I had this thought... What if we put something really heavy on that carbon fiber beam. (It's 4"x4", by 72" long). I was thinking maybe like a Smart Car. Then Jonathan goes, "let me do some numbers, but I bet we can drive a truck on one of those." I love it when he talks like that. Well, to make a long story short, we did drive a Toyota truck onto the beam. And as if that wasn't enough, Teri invited her buddy with a very patriotic Hummer over to give it a try. We did that too, and the beam only bowed a quarter inch, and sprung back to its original shape. Just in case they started objecting that the beam was really made of steel and we painted it to look like composite.... we had two kids, brothers about 4 and 6 years old, carry the thing out after the Hummer had its way with it.


Oh yeah, the picture... So Autometrix machines move all that lightweight stuff as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. I mentioned it to Jonathan.... "I've always wondered how hard it would be to build a camera slider...." It worked. Jonathan, only a  few hours later had a single rail slider mounted to a carbon fiber beam on the smoothest rollers I've ever seen. Later he said he's got ideas to make it even smoother. Sheesh. I shot more than half of the video using my Canon 60D without a crew I might add, and moved that slider all over the place. The picture above shows it next to the rack they threw together to support the victim-beam and my camera mounted on a combination of spare parts they built to my specs. I am not kidding when I say it rivaled what some over-priced, hand-wringing craftsman was selling this year at NAB after three years of development. I had around 8' of motion and my cheap little tripod head got me level even when I clamped the rail between two step ladders.


Good old American innovation. Oh, and I haven't heard yet, but the video was debuted at a tradeshow that started yesterday. I'm sure the competition is now out there saying something like, "We meant... that ... the Autometrix machines can't cut a LOT of fabric, because it's so light... ummmm weight....."  Maybe if we're lucky, they'll start to pontificate on the trouble with American politics as a diversion to the truth about their antiquated and massive contribution to the spare parts industries around their hulks. Who knows maybe they'll solve American politics.


Just in case they take a shot at durability over time... the other video I shipped off showed a relic of one of the first Autometrix machines that has been running for 15 years without downtime.  The "Old Driller" has cut thousands of holes on the lexan vaccuum table-top installed on every Autometrix machine (and not a few Eastman and Gerber machine's I hear, by the way). That single old dog of a plotter head has done the most thankless job in the house, with only the usual change over of consumables that wear at half the speed of the competition. Things like pinions and gears. It sort of reminded me of Pixar's Wall-E as it chugged along humming it's little tune from days gone by. I hope these guys keep coming up with new smack about Autometrix. It's very fun to see what the brilliant engineers are willing to do to prove a point.


We've actually got a bag of great stuff we're going to do when the gang comes back from the trade show. In all, it was a good week, hard work. In the end we got three short videos out in record time, and a longer version almost complete even now. But that's what we do, right? Small budget... no problem, no time.... no problem..... high enough quality to kick butt at the biggest trade show in textiles.... DONE!!!


Every producer needs at least one client who is willing to write the rules when the competition has worked so hard to break the last ones!




A Hard Week

Dealing with loss. I hate loss.