Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Filtering by Tag: factorytour

Distributed Manufacturing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Note: This draft was started about a year and a half ago. In the name of valuing what's shipped more than what's (theoretically) perfect, I publish it now with considerably less preciousness than originally planned. 

When I took these pictures - on the street in Dongguan, PRC, in the summer of 2015 - I was thinking about the emphasis that American startup culture has placed on distributed manufacturing over the past few years. According to the narrative, distributed manufacturing is being enabled by a combination of 3D printing, streamlined digital documentation standards, and web/mobile outsourcing marketplaces. Through these, we're ostensibly moving towards a paradigm that offers unparalleled improvements in efficiency, variety, and speed-to-market.

Parts of this narrative may well be true. I'm certain, however, that neither additive, nor the model-based enerpeise, nor any digital matchmaking service is a prerequisite for distributed manufacturing. Really, all you need is real estate and some demand for (in this case) overnight EDM and machined parts. 

I tell you, seeing this was really breathtaking.  

Photos from a visit to CCAT

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A few months back I had the pleasure of visiting the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, which is located on the UTC/Pratt & Whitney East Hartford campus. CCAT began as a facility focused on researching laser drilling, but has moved deeper into 3D printing, and specifically directed energy deposition, in the past few years. 

In addition to a full subtractive (manual and CNC) shop, CCAT has a few cool additive tools that I was particularly interested in. The first is an Optomec 850R LENS system. The 850R is a large format directed energy deposition machine which can be used for both new parts and repairs. It's also useful for material development, as DED machines can create parts with a small amount of powder (while powder bed fusion machines generally require a large amount of powder).

(Click on the photos for larger versions + descriptions)

The other thing I was excited to see was their Kuka HA30 robot, which has a coaxial laser cladding head attached to it. This robot can be used for either etching/engraving or cladding, meaning that it can either subtract or add material to a part. Especially when combined with the two-axis rotary table shown below, this thing can create some really complex parts.

It was really cool seeing these specialized technologies being used in real life. Thanks to CCAT for having me!

Photos from an antenna factory in Shenzhen

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I visited The Public Radio's antenna supplier in Shenzhen. I had only a vague idea of how antennas were made, and it was interesting to see the process in person. It was also fascinating to see a shop that relied so much on manual and mechanically driven machinery. 

A few observations:

  • This shop manufactures a variety of parts, with the defining feature being that they're made of tubing. For our antennas, the process works basically like this:
    • Tubing is bundled together with zipties and cut to length by wire EDM.
    • Tubing ends are swaged in/out.
    • Sections are assembled into a single telescoping unit
    • Meanwhile, end fittings are manufactured from solid stock. This happens either on the automatic turret lathes, or on single-operation manual machines (lathes/drill presses).
    • End fittings are installed on the telescoping antennas, again using swaging/forming processes.
  • The whole operation was decidedly low tech and manual - almost disturbingly so. It would seem very difficult to control quality - which I guess should be expected when you're looking at a niche, and rather inexpensive, commodity product.

A few of the photos have notes on them - click to show.

Photos from a speaker factory in Dongguan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I took a trip to the Pearl River Delta to visit, among other things (see one, two), the factory in Dongguan that made the speakers for The Public Radio. Below are some long overdue photos from the visit, along with whatever comments I can muster up from memory. 

Note: if you click on the photos, you can seem them larger. Some also have my own notes on them too.

Like most factories I've visited in both China and Taiwan, this one comprised a cluster of buildings around a large concrete courtyard. Immediately inside the gate on the right hand side (out of view of the photos below) was the office building; to its left was the assembly shop, then dormitories, then a building that housed the toolroom and the injection molding line.

We started our tour in the office building. I didn't get any photos of the conference areas, where we spent a good portion of the visit (we needed to discuss a redesign of the speaker, which was going to require new tooling and a few other changes). We dropped our bags there and introduced ourselves, and then went upstairs to see the R&D area.

There were a *lot* of different speakers here. The main part of the R&D area housed a few cubicles, each of which seemed to have more product on it than the last. There was also a small workshop area for assembling sample units, a semi soundproof chamber, and a listening room.

Our supplier had on site tooling and injection molding. We didn't even realize this coming in, but it was great to see that they could have full control of their own process and design. 

Tooling is then sent next door to the injection molding line. Our factory was in the process of installing automated part handling on a few of their machines, which was interesting to see in real time. 

Then up to the speaker assembly area. They had (if I recall correctly) six moving assembly lines, which were broken up by the size of the speakers they could handle. Speaker assembly is mostly a process of gluing different components together, so there were a bunch of specialized tools that would inject adhesive in a controlled manner.

Back outside. The office is on the left here, then the injection molding line & toolroom, then the assembly shop.

Heading back to Dongguan that afternoon, I was impressed with what we had seen. This was a pretty small business, and we were a tiny customer. They (like most of the people we talked to in China) were somewhat confused with our product, but they had a good attitude and definitely understood why we wanted to make the changes we had asked for - and were interested in helping us get what we wanted.

Photos from NYIO's trip to the MTA's Coney Island Complex

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The other day, the New York Infrastructure Observatory took a tour of the MTA's Coney Island Yards. I had heard that the Coney Island Yards were *the* thing to see in the MTA's vast array of locations and properties, and was thrilled that they were able to accommodate us.

You can read more about the Coney Island Complex in the tour announcement email, and sign up to learn about upcoming tours here.

Note: Most of the photos below have descriptions, which you can see if you click on them :)

Thanks again to the MTA for hosting us!

Photos from a noodle factory

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past August, I visited Tsue Chong Co, a noodle and fortune cookie factory in Seattle. Most of this is pretty self explanatory, but I figured it was worth posting on a Friday for fun :)

They had two methods of making fortune cookies. Here's the older machine:

A video posted by Spencer Wright (@pencerw) on

And here's the newer, modern machine:

A video posted by Spencer Wright (@pencerw) on

They also made rice noodles. The process is a little hard to see here but it's basically a big steamer that congeals the rice slurry as it is fed through the machine:

A video posted by Spencer Wright (@pencerw) on

And a few photos of the rest of the shop, including their wheat noodle production process:

Manufacturing, huh? Happy Friday :)

Brilliant's videos

Added on by Spencer Wright.

When I went to Taiwan last year with Brilliant Bicycle Co., I wrote a few posts that described the trip & what we saw there. But I never linked to Jacob Krupnick's videos of the trip, which do a much better job of relaying the mood & feel of the trip. So, here goes.

First, the tire factory (see my notes here):

Second, the cardboard box factory (see my notes here):

Third, the fork factory (see my notes here):

Fourth, the frame factory (see my notes here):

Fifth, the final assembly shop (see my notes here):

Sixth, the saddle shop (no notes from me, sorry):

Seventh, the paint shop (ditto):

Notes from Tesla's Fremont factory

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Today I had the pleasure of visiting Tesla's Fremont factory, where every single Model S is built. While they don't allow photos on the tour, I did take this pano to prove that I'm not fabricating the whole thing (but seriously though, a Google Image search does a decent job at showing you what it looks like inside):


Anyway, a couple of thoughts came to me on the tour, and I wanted to share them:

  1. First of all, the whole place is an information overload. It's noisy (not at all unbearable, but still), and the tour is a whirlwind - the whole thing took just over an hour. Moreover, the entire building is filled with visual clutter. It's all stunningly beautiful, but there's just so much going on, and it's nearly impossible to see, analyze, and understand what you're looking at, what's being done to it, and which direction it's headed in the assembly line, before the train of golf carts that you're being dragged around in speeds off to the next thing. This is not meant to be a criticism of either the tour or the factory itself, and I'm sure an automotive engineer would have an easier time soaking things in than I did, but for the majority of the tour I struggled.
  2. Lot of emphasis on sheet metal. Elon Musk loves his aluminum, and the tour itself is expressly directed towards the hydraulic presses that Tesla uses to turn rolls of aluminum sheet (from what the tour guide said, I suspect it's 16ga) into a car. 
  3. The tour also emphasized the economy that Musk/Tesla employs in building up their capabilities. The core story here is that American manufacturers (GM is called out by name, mostly due to the fact that they're the former owner of the NUMMI site, which you should learn about) don't want/need big equipment or industrial space in the US anymore, and so Tesla has been able to buy this stuff for a song. So the purchase of their largest hydraulic press (the biggest in North America); the decision to use a Lotus platform for the Roadster; Tesla's use of the factory itself; - all of these are described (not inaccurately) as shrewd financial decisions.
  4. Interestingly, the only other brand names that get shout-outs on the tour are all Robotics companies: Kuka, ABB, and Fanuc. That fact - combined with the legendary stuff (all apparently real) about many of these robots having X-Men names - and the fact that the tour also highlights the human craft that goes into a range of sexy (and not-so-sexy) features of their cars - gave me the distinct feeling that Tesla consciously makes their industrial automation efforts seem as anthropomorphic as possible.
  5. This has been reported before, and it's worth noting again: Tesla's current production is about 1,000 vehicles per week. In the NUMMI days, this same facility turned out about 6x that.
  6. One thing that I was somewhat surprised by: Towards the end of our tour, the guide paused to explicitly note Tesla's purpose: To help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy. To be sure, I personally find this statement to be the most compelling thing about Tesla/Musk, if not the most compelling thing about any public company in the world (if you haven't read Musk's Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan, I'd really implore you to do so). But to hear it called out on a factory tour, to an audience which was made up almost exclusively of Tesla owners (besides a Tesla employee who had brought their family, I believe I was the only person *not* picking up a Model S right after the tour), seemed downright canny. Which leads me to my real observation:

Tesla is not, first and foremost, a manufacturing company; to wax on about the factory tour would miss the point. Their focus is simple: Musk has a singular vision for how the global energy lifecycle should work, and Tesla is doing whatever's necessary to bring it to fruition. Tesla is an energy company, and they're a "we're doing this because we believe in it and goddammit nobody else will" company. Which is really admirable, and it pleased me to see them use their factory - which, in spite of its relatively low throughput, is certainly a spectacle to behold - as a way to convert people to their mindset.

Production sequence report

Added on by Spencer Wright.

First: Big thanks to Sam, Tieg, Buenas, Amanda, Jenny, Daniel, Lisa, Jordan and Sasha for helping Zach and I assemble the first 65 Public Radios. The day went really well, and we really appreciate everyone who helped out.

A few things we learned:

  • Antenna screw installation can probably be staged separately from the rest of the operation. It's a fairly rote task, and can be done with little concentration. In the future, we'll probably do the antenna screws at its own station, possibly on a totally different day than the rest of the assembly process.
  • We need *way* more speaker alignment & assembly fixtures. We had 7; I think I want to have 25 next time.
  • We need a foolproof, mechanical method of making sure the speaker screws are all equally (and appropriately) tight. 
  • Scanning the barcodes (which are on the underside of the lids) is kind of a pain in the ass, but could be worse.

In total, the mechanical assembly process takes about 6 minutes per radio. I'd like to cut that in half; I really want the full box build (taking raw components in and ending up with a tuned, packaged radio at the end) to take about 4 minutes. I think the stuff above will help, and I'm hoping to make more progress towards this goal over the next week.

A brief intro to The New York Infrastructure Observatory

Added on by Spencer Wright.

So. What's up with NYIO?

Almost a year ago, I wrote an email to Tim & Craig telling them I wanted to launch an East Coast version of their Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory. I knew them through friends and from the internet, and was interested in building a community of like-minded people in NYC.

Shortly after, I started a list of locations to visit and began slowly planning trips. Over the past six months, I've organized three tours under the NYIO banner. The first was to Amazon's Delaware Fulfillment center; the second was to Sims Metal Management, and the third (just last week) was to GCT Bayonne. They've been sporadic, but they've caught steam; the last trip filled up within a few hours.

These locations were chosen mostly according to how easy they were to schedule, and I plan on taking a similar approach towards upcoming trips. But I'd also like your input - whether to suggest a site I'm not aware of, or to take over scheduling & logistics for an upcoming trip. If you've got a location you think is worth visiting, please be in touch

Photos from MicroTek Finishing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In December, I visited MicroTek Finishing in Cincinnati, Ohio. MicroTek's proprietary process takes rough parts (often produced by DMLS and EBM) and gives them selectively smooth surfaces; the results are absolutely stunning.

MicroTek is very careful to make clear that their process is *not* polishing, claiming it's more like micro-machining. They're also able to control surface features in highly precise ways, leaving exactly the magnitude and frequency roughness desired. It's a fascinating idea, and one that they're able to charge a pretty penny for.

I've been scheming on using MicroTek on my DMLS seatmast topper; I'll be sure to report back if/when it happens.

Notes from a bicycle assembly shop in Taiwan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last October I visited Universal Speed, the assembly shop that Brilliant Bicycles are built by. A few notes:

  • The dedicated tooling to do frame prep operations (bearing pressing, etc) was *cool.* Most of it was made by Shuz Tung, a Taiwanese company.
  • The wheelbuilding line was the single biggest part of the operation. The truing machine especially was impressive (videos below).
  • They build everything upside down! I can't imagine doing this, but the advantages re: not touching the paint are really big.
  • It was a really big facility - tens of thousands of square feet. 
  • The moving assembly line was fun.

Here are the wheels being built:

And here's the wheel truing machine in more detail:

Here's the whole shop (ish):

Notes from a bicycle frame factory in Taiwan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In October, I visited a Taiwanese bicycle frame factory with Brilliant Bicycles


The shop was 10 or 20 thousand feet. A significant portion of it was storage, and there was a smallish office area near the front door. We met the owners and had lunch upstairs above the office, which provided a nice place to take a pan of the whole shop.

The sheer quantity of dedicated fixtures here was kind of staggering. I couldn't tell (and didn't ask) but it seemed like they probably made fixtures for a lot of frame subassemblies, each of which would be dedicated to a certain frame model and size. This video shows about half of the fixtures that I saw in storage.

Frame subassemblies were tacked and stacked in tall piles. I'd guess that the main frame fixture took an hour or two to set up, but at that point the tacking would go quickly. The subassemblies would then be moved down the welding line, comme ci:

The quality of the welding here was very good. There were a bunch of guys doing TIG and a few brazing dropouts. They all had big fans running, but it was still hot. We were around right as their lunch break began:

As with the fork factory we visited, the alignment process was *so* cool; unlike the fork factory, I didn't take a video of it :( As I watched the one alignment guy go through his routine, I couldn't help but compare it to my old Traffic Cycle Design alignment setup. This guy was doing a full, thorough frame alignment, *and* reaming seat tubes, all in something like 2 minutes. I would have been hard pressed to do the same in a half hour.

All in all, this factory was *really* fun to visit. Its super interesting seeing someone else perform tasks that are similar to ones you've done. In all honesty, I was always really attracted to the idea of having a much larger shop setup - and one that could perform tasks much more efficiently than I was ever able to. It was fun seeing that kind of operation running in real life.

Notes from a bicycle fork factory in Taiwan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In October, I visited a Taiwanese bicycle fork builder with Brilliant Bicycles. The shop was in a totally rural area; the vast majority of land usage was rice paddies. These photos are taken from directly in front of the shop:

The building on the far left is the fork shop's storage area.

That's the fork shop on the far right.

The shop itself was a couple thousand square feet. It was rectangular, and had a single gable roof. The gable end to the east had a huge open door, and there were fans everywhere to maintain airflow; it was hot inside nonetheless. On the other end the shop adjoined to what I presume were office and a small apartment area. 

A few notes:

  • Fork legs came in straight. Unicrown fork blades were bent in house from straight legs.
  • The dropout end of the fork blades were swaged, slotted & brazed first. I don't have any pictures of the process but it was pretty cool - the brazing especially. They had a big turntable, maybe 6 feet in diameter and with a few dozen fixtures around the perimeter. Each fork blade had powdered flux + brass filler shoved down from the top, and the dropouts were fluxed with paste. The whole assemblies snapped into the machine and sat on an incline, so that the dropouts were on the perimeter and the blades angled up and to the center of the turntable. Then the whole thing was spun very slowly, and a single flame at the perimeter would heat one of the dropouts up until the brass melted and flowed, and then the turntable would advance to the next dropout. 
  • Then the blades would be assembled into crowns. The whole crown was brazed at once with the tips pointing up (video below).
  • Then the forks would be raked. That machine was really cool too - there's a photo below.
  • Then the crowns would be drilled & counterbored on dedicated fixtures. They had two or three small drill presses set up to do this, and they were running full time while we were at the shop.
  • Alignment was awesome. The guy was really quick with the whole process, and it was a fluid and rhythmic operation. Video below.
  • It looked like they did mostly lugged forks, but that could have been just the time we visited - there was a TIG setup there, but it wasn't being used while we were there.

The shop manager was enthusiastic about showing his brazing skills. I was surprised that they brazed them before bending, but the process actually makes a ton of sense in their environment.

The fork alignment process was *awesome.* 

Here's a pan of the whole shop:

I liked this shop a *lot.* As we were leaving, the owner commiserated with April that though he had worked there his whole life, he didn't think his children would want to do the same. Building bike forks isn't the dirtiest job in the world, but it isn't the cleanest either. Furthermore, these are good quality but relatively inexpensive steel forks; the product is essentially a commodity, and it isn't exactly prestigious work. I wondered aloud if they could make more money, and have slightly nicer working conditions, if they moved to carbon fiber products. The problem with that is that although the product is a substitute, the skills and equipment needed are quite different. In the end, it might be more fruitful and no less difficult for the next generation to change industries altogether. But anyway the owner was relatively young himself, so it could be decades before it changes at all.

Notes from a cardboard factory in Taiwan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In October, I visited a Taiwanese cardboard factory in Taiwan with Brilliant Bicycles. A few notes:

  • Paper comes in, finished cardboard boxes go out.
  • The paper rolls come in various shapes, sizes, and presumably thicknesses, but they're generally *huge* and brown. 
  • The whole place, but especially the sheet assembly line, was really loud - one of the loudest places I've ever been. 
  • There are three big portions of the factory: the sheet assembly area, the box printing & slotting area, and *lot* of cardboard sheets stacked up around the factory.
    • The sheet assembly area takes brown paper rolls, each of which weigh upwards of a ton, and transform them into cardboard sheets. The machine that does this is huge - probably 20 feet wide and maybe 200 feet long. The cardboard we saw getting made was 5-ply, which has three flat sheets (the two faces and one in the middle; think the slices of bread in a club sandwich) and two corrugated sheets (think the bacon, turkey, etc in the same sandwich). Presumably the exact specifications of the corrugation (e.g. its thickness) affect the structural properties of the cardboard; I think the sheets we saw getting made had thicker corrugations (maybe for the inside of the box) on one side and thinner on the other. Anyway, the sheet assembly machine takes five big rolls of paper and spools them out together, corrugating them as necessary and applying adhesive between the sheets. Then it applies pressure and feeds the whole continuous sheet through a pair of heated plates, which help cure the adhesive. Then it trims the sides off, slots the sheet in half lengthwise, and then chops each half into sheets of the appropriate size for what they're making.
    • Then the sheets are stored in stacks around the shop. There were a *lot* of stacks of cardboard sheets - a large portion of the factory was just storage.
    • The box printing and slotting section was a bit more disperse. There were a bunch of machines to perform these steps; some did one or the other, and some (including the one that Brilliant's boxes were made on) do both. The printing is done with big, colorful, silicone stamps. Most of these were presumably made out-of-house, but there were some (like the "no knives" and "fragile" stamps) which seemed to be standard and were being assembled onto clear plastic sheets (mylar?) by people in one area of the shop. We didn't see steel rule slotting dies being made (perhaps they were outsourced), but they were stored all over the shop. There were a bunch of varieties of those - some were used in manual die presses, and others were loaded into slotting machines and then operated automatically.
  • A bunch of work was put into aligning the stamp and dies in the machine. If I were to guess, I'd say 5-10 sample parts were made before the alignment came out right.
  • Once the alignment was right, the boxes came out really quickly. We were only having a few hundred boxes made; I'd guess they'd be done within a few hours. 

The place was huge - one of the single biggest unobstructed spaces I've ever been in:

The cardboard printing & slotting machine was really cool. There's nothing like a black box that takes raw material in and spits out a useable object on the other side:

Seeing general purpose manufacturing is always a lot of fun. Cardboard boxes are used *everywhere.* Having seen how they're made gives valuable perspective on something that's on basically any BOM.

Notes from a tire factory in Taiwan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

In October, I visited a Taiwanese tire factory in Taiwan with Brilliant Bicycles. I didn't take many photos, but do have a few notes:

  • The factory made a bunch of solid tires for forklifts and other equipment in the front.
  • In the back were two sides: One for bicycles, the other for scooters and other larger pneumatic applications.
  • The shop did *not* make their own nylon cord for tire casings; they purchased that from a vendor. The cord comes in a wide sheet, is cut on a bias and put together into a long strip (video below).
  • They also did not make their own kevlar (foldable) tire beads. Apparently all of the Taiwanese tire shops (there are a few) purchase these from one single supplier.
  • They do make their own steel beads. Wire is straightened, doubled up, and wrapped into a loop with a bunch of unvulcanized rubber and bound together into a single unit.
  • The machines they use to assemble the tires - casing, bead, and tread - are *really* cool. There's a decent video of the process here.
  • Tread molds seemed eminently reasonable - they only cost a few thousand dollars. The uncured and relatively shapeless tires are put into molds, where pressure and heat form the shape and cure the rubber.

Here's a photo of the front of the shop, where solid tires were being stored:

And here's a video of nylon cord being cut on a bias and spliced together:

And, two random photos: One of a magazine in the factory's conference room, and one from the restaurant that the (extremely eager) factory manager took us to for lunch:

A few notes from Boeing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week I visited Boeing's Everett, WA factory, and saw the 747, 777, and 787 lines. I couldn't take pictures and had no time for notes, but I did have a few observations/factoids that I wanted to record:

  • The tour was *not* free - it cost $16 if you reserved ahead of time, which I did. They do tours every hour or two, and my group filled two buses - probably 50 or 60 people in total.
  • The Everett facility is the largest building in the world by volume. Our tour guide said that last year someone in China opened a mall that's bigger by floor space, but that Boeing is expanding to get that title back too. I assume that that is a) hyperbole, and b) true nonetheless.
  • The facility employs something like 41,000 people on a daily basis. Fuck.
  • The 787 is pretty cool. It's made mostly of composites - presumably carbon fiber + epoxy + some mix of aluminum, titanium, ceramics, and other metals (there's a good explainer on its construction here). Its wings can flex something like 21 feet vertically during flight, giving it a lot more vertical compliance and presumably making the ride a lot smoother.
  • The 787 is significantly smaller than the 747. Boeing is proud of this, and scoffs at the Airbus A380's enormous size. They're trying to push away from the hub-and-spoke model, and encourage airlines to purchase more planes, which will fly a wide variety of routes at relatively high usage rates. Since it's really hard for airlines to make money when flights aren't full, this strategy seems to make sense - it's *really* hard to fill an A380 (they fit 853 passengers!), so why not just buy two or three 787s (242 to 335 passengers) and fly them fully booked?
  • Planes are purchased without engines or seats; those need to be bought separately, and Boeing will install them at the end of their production line.
  • I asked what engines Boeing uses, and was told that while the makers vary by model, Boeing typically uses a mix of GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and CFM (a collaboration between GE and Snecma).
  • Interestingly, Pratt & Whitney (now a subsidiary of United Technologies), Boeing, and United Airlines all once shared a parent company: the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. That company was disbanded in 1934.

I would *love* to know more about the 787 supply chain. The Japanese company that makes the prepreg, Toray, looks interesting. And obviously both Mitsubishi and Kawasaki (both big suppliers for Boeing) are fascinating as well. 

DMLS in process

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This is my seatmast topper being printed from titanium 6/4 powder on an EOS M280 at DRT Medical - Morris.

This video clip is about 1-2mm into the build, so this is the very close to the bottom edge of the part (which, to be clear, is lying on its side). A lot of what's being printed during this clip is support structures & ribs that will help hold the part to the build plate, but you can clearly see the general shape of the part already.

This is 6th iteration on this build. In other words, we printed 5 parts before this one, and each of them failed for one reason or another. We've (and by we I mean mostly Dave Bartosik, the head Additive Technologist at DRT, with me trying to look over his shoulder) made a bunch of modifications to the build to help the part come out within spec, and I'm hoping that today we end up with something that has consistent inner diameters and is more or less useable.

Anyway, what you're seeing here is a 400 watt ytterbium fiber laser in the process of melting 30 micron layers of titanium powder. The recoating arm spreads a thin layer of powder, and then the laser scans a cross sectional slice of the part, and then the process repeats. 

When the video goes into slow motion, notice the smoke that's coming off of the weld pool. The machine has a laminar flow of argon gas that's blown across the build platform (from top to bottom in this video) that pulls the soot away and filters it outside the machine.

More soon.

NYIO Session Two Notes: Sims Metal Management's Sunset Park facility

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week I visited Sims Metal Management's Sunset Park facility with the New York Infrastructure Observatory. The whole group posted notes in a public Google Doc, and we shared photos & videos on Dropbox - both of which I'd encourage you to check out. My overview is here.

Location: Sims Metal Management’s Sunset Park facility

472 2nd Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11232


  • Spencer Wright
  • Jason Spinell
  • Daniel Suo
  • Athena Diaconis
  • Jiayi Ying
  • Benny Zhu
  • Mark Breneman

Arrived at: 1400

Tour began at: ~1430

Tour completed at: ~1600

Tour guide was named Eadaoin Quinn

First: When we arrived at Sims, we immediately saw that they were installing a wind turbine in the front of the building. It will eventually generate about 100kW, which is in the neighborhood of 2% of the facility's energy usage.

This facility processes streetside recycling for the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn (I believe Staten Island goes elsewhere). Brooklyn and Queens deliver directly by truck; the Bronx delivers by barge from a transfer station in Hunts Point; Manhattan will soon be delivering by barge from a station on the West Side. Sims does *not* handle commercial or construction waste. Our tour guide said that there are about 250 commercial carriers, each of which has their own sorting facilities and policies. At some point in the future, it's possible that Sims would contract to process their product as well, but it's not clear when.

It costs $65-70 per ton in "tipping fees" to process waste at Sims. For comparison, it costs the city $100+ per ton to put waste in a landfill. 

All told, recycling costs the city money. In the early 2000s, Mayor Bloomberg cancelled most of NYC's streetside recycling, saying that it just wasn't economically feasible. He later reversed his stance, but the cost-benefit analysis (at least in the short term) still isn't great.

Sims processes 600+ tons of product (i.e. recyclables: bottles, cans, paper, etc) per day. They have two daytime shifts, running from 0800 to 2400. They run maintenance daily from 000 to 800, plus another eight hour shift on the weekend.

They try not to shut down for maintenance during the workday, but it does happen. They *hate* plastic bags here (our tour guide had testified in favor of a plastic bag tax the day before we arrived). They're difficult to process, clog up the machines, and have essentially zero resale value. When unplanned maintenance does happen, it seems to usually be the result of plastic bags. Sims processes about 30 tons per day of bags alone.

Another surprise was the way they process glass. Because glass isn't sorted and handled carefully, it essentially lands at their door partially crushed. It's then crushed further (by their disc screens), and then allowed to filter through their process chain, ending up literally at the bottom of their machines. From there it's sent by barge to Sims' Jersey City facility, which expects everything to be roughly 3/8" in any dimension. There, it's scanned and sorted optically between clear and non-clear. Clear glass can be resold and recycled, but it's *really* difficult to sort brown from green - and the two cannot be recycled together. As a result, they're sold as underlayment for public works projects - roadbeds, foundations, etc. Oh - and Sims has some in a planter in the front of their building, too.

The facility's big bragging point, though, is its 16 Titech optical sorting machines. These track the frequency response as items run down conveyors and have infrared light shown at them; different plastics respond differently, and are sorted by pneumatic sprayers as a result. The whole process is totally automated and pretty cool:

Once all the different products are sorted, they're baled into blocks weighing between 800 and 1200 pounds. Sims has relationships with 3-5 customers for each product, and sells it to those customers depending on how their bids (which are updated monthly) compare to the national prices for the commodities they're selling. The contract that Sims has with the city requires a portion of the national price to be paid back to the city each month, so presumably Sims is incentivized to sell the product for more than those national prices.