Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Industrial Fiction: Random Parts

John Snodgrass had let his refrigerator run out of the makings for sandwiches and other lunch type foods.

Consequently, he swung by a big-box store that had a grocery department close to one of the doors.

Pulling into the parking lot, he saw a girl standing forlornly next to her car with the hood up. She was holding a pair of jumper cables. As he slowed down, she gave a shrug as if asking “What are you going to do?”

She was a good looking girl and it should only take a second to give her car a jump.

Snodgrass did what any red-blooded man would do. He pulled his truck in so the vehicles were pointed nose-to-nose.

“You don’t have to get out” she yelled. “I can handle this.”

She probably could but Snodgrass had just come off a 14 hour day and he just wanted to get his stuff and go home. The other factor was that she was pretty and young and only a clod would stay in his vehicle and not try to help out any way he could.

“No worries” Snodgrass said, hopping out.

She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt that Snodgrass vaguely thought of as “Cow-girl style” and a pair of jeans that were snug enough to reveal her form but neither ripped nor skin-tight.

The first try at a jump was not successful.

Snodgrass wiggled the connections and deduced that the positive terminal of the girl’s battery post was loose. Snodgrass had a set of wrenches and he addressed the problem, being careful to not strip out the soft lead of the battery.

The second try was successful.

“Thanks” the girl said.

“I would love to stay and chat” the girl said “but I have to hurry so I won’t be late for class”

“What are you taking?” Snodgrass asked. And then he kicked himself for asking such an inane question.

“Physics” she replied. Snodgrass was impressed in spite of himself.

“Come here often?” Snodgrass asked.

“I work here” she replied. “My name is Abigail but I really gotta run.”

Abigail pitched the jumper cables into the trunk of her car, slammed the hood. Jumping in behind the steering wheel she quickly drove off.

Snodgrass never thought of himself as a player but he was usually much smoother and self-possessed around women than he had been around Abigail. At least she shared her name and the fact that she worked here.

Snodgrass picked up deli meat and bread and bananas and granola bars and yogurt and squeeze-packs of applesauce. He had been eating like a horse since he started working the line and didn’t seem to be able to keep weight on.

The next morning’s standup meeting followed the usual routine. Paula shared that he was going to be working in a station called “random parts”.

As he worked he learned that the station had a bad reputation with both the operators and management.

Operators hated it because it was the station that installed parts that didn’t seem to belong any particular place. So the industrial Engineers had swept those parts into a pile and assigned them to that particular station. That meant that the station was “busy” with many, many parts; none of which took very long to install but the correct part had to be selected from the bins. And that was the rub. Each of the four products the plant manufactured had hinges that looked almost identical and had gas-struts that looked almost identical and had SD cards that did look identical.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the “pick face” or the racks that held the parts spanned over 30 feet of the line. Every job required that the operator pick the hinges, the gas-strut, the SD card and the other parts by walking the entire 30 feet and then dashing to where the product was on the assembly line and installing them before the product entered the next station.

Management hated the station because it had a miserable Process Failure Modes and Effects score. That is, it spewed defects at a steady rate. Wrong hinges caused cross-threaded screws. Wrong gas-struts didn’t stay attached to the ball-studs. Installing a wrong SD card meant that the “handshake” with all of the other discretes was corrupted and the unit had to be pulled off-line and a thirty minute purge and re-download initiated.

As bad as that was, there was some evidence from the field that some of the product COULD get out with the wrong SD cards and function, sort of, for a while before totally locking up. That was a totally intolerable situation for people who considered the units to be mission-critical equipment.

Engineering had already informed the Plant that engineering solutions were off-the-table due to the cost of revalidate any changes. 

In the station Snodgrass found the simplest of systems for designating parts: Colored stickers. The order of the parts bins seemed entirely random. Sometimes the parts were ordered A-B-C-D but most often it was a random mix left-to-right.

The operators brought some order to the system by putting colored stickers in front of the bins with Red stickers for the oldest model, Yellow (which had faded to white) for the second model, Green for the third model and Blue for the newest model.

Next Installment


  1. I have a supplier of plastic pipe fittings. Elbows, 45s, Ts, couplings, etc. Comes in sizes 1-2.5". They do not standardized colored stickers on outside of box, so a 1.25" T might have a green one, or orange or red, so might a 2.5" 90. No uniformity at all, totally random assignment.

    Imagine if you will how easy life would be, if all 1" boxes used orange stickers, all 1.25" were green, the 1.5" stuff was blue...

    Simple stuff.

  2. My head starts working on solutions the second things like this show up. I instantly saw a four tiered shelf system. One tier per product. Sweep from and end to end and done. Only need to adjust which shelf you pick from. But loading parts into the system wuold be the issue then.

    My days in IE were some of the happiest I ever had. I learned a lot there.

  3. I went the same way STx did... LOL And now a love interest???

    1. There are always a thousand reasons why things are exactly they way they are. And people hate change.

      Regarding the love interest, as a writer I have to be careful that I don't make Snodgrass too perfect. He has to try and fail. Solutions have to come from a large variety of sources. A love interest provides a large canvas to make Snodgrass seem more human.

  4. On behalf of those who have trouble distinguishing red from green in low ambient light, I'd urge Snodgrass to use bright versions of both colors, and make sure there is adequate light at the racks.