The Travelling Engineer, Installment 2

In this second installment, I hope to continue to give you a small insight into how the reality of working as a travelling engineer for a machine supplier matches up to the job description. After 15 years of working for Viking Test Ltd. and having the opportunity to visit a variety of interesting locations around the world, any illusions I previously held have been shattered. The details that follow may not be 100% accurate, but they are how I honestly remember the experiences.

Smartphones and satellite navigation have made a massive difference to our ability to find our way from place to place and make arrangements for hotels and travelling. My early experiences travelling for Viking pre-date any mass-market devices to help with navigation, which added a whole extra level of preparation to find my way from place to place and make bookings for places to stay.

The job that I undertook was the installation of one of the first drop-on-demand legend printers installed in Europe—a machine made to print component identification and markings on the surface of circuit boards. The process is now reasonably well established, but back then, it was an exciting new process.

My boss briefed me before starting the journey. This was the first time I had worked on this type of machine, so he arranged for me to meet an engineer from an office in Europe who had travelled to the machine manufacturer in Japan for training. The plan was for me to work alongside the experienced engineer to learn the correct installation method and how to commission the machine. I was basically going to be there to help with the heavy lifting and to watch and learn.

The trip started with the standard drive to Heathrow Airport to catch an early flight to Frankfurt, Germany. I landed and picked up a hire car to drive me to meet up with my colleague for the week. The normal method for finding my way to the destination was to have a written plan of the route with motorway junctions and road names. I was heading for a small town called Idstein, and so far, all was going to plan.

For those of you who are not used to hiring cars in countries that have the steering wheel on the other side of the car, the first few times are an interesting experience. When you start to relax, it is easy to reach for the gear lever with the wrong hand and also a bit disconcerting when you glance at the rearview mirror and see the top corner of the door.

Once I arrived in Idstein, I drove around and around looking for the right road. The problem with having a written set of instructions is that it does not allow for anything going off course. All you can do is to try and retrace your steps until you get back to one of your listed waypoints. When I finally found the right place, it was within a residential area, so right until the last minute, I was still convinced I was going the wrong way as I was expecting an industrial area with other commercial buildings.

I walked into the office and realised immediately that something was very wrong. To date, I still remember it as one of the most difficult moments I have had to deal with. There were two men and a woman who were at the back of the room, and all of them were quite visibly upset. I had never met any of these people before, so I carried on, introduced myself, and explained who I was intending to meet.

Quite a few seconds passed before one of the gentlemen said, “You don’t know, do you?” I was still wondering how I should respond when he explained to me that the engineer I was travelling to meet had been killed the day before in a car accident on the motorway. In that tragic situation, there was so little I could do or say to comfort the people involved. The three people at the office had just lost a colleague and friend. I apologised profusely for my intrusion, left the office, and sat for a while in my hire car. I had never met any of these people before, but I still experienced a huge feeling of loss and sadness.

After some time, I thought about what to do next. I guessed that the customer still knew nothing about the situation, so I decided to travel to the factory to explain what had happened and to help in any way that I could.

I had a mobile phone, but the capability at that time was limited to voice calls and texting. I called the Viking office in the U.K. and took down an address and some rough directions for reaching the customer site. The hour it took me to travel there was long enough for me to decide that I should make all efforts to proceed with the machine installation if only to try to keep pressure off the grieving people at the Idstein office.

Ladle_PCBMagMay2019.jpgFigure 1: CraftPix machine.

The customer was very understanding and helpful and did not put pressure on me. He showed me through to the machine and the associated packages and left me to it. The machine was supplied by Microcraft in Japan, and I have to give them some serious credit for an excellent machine manual (Figure 1). There was a stage-by-stage installation guide along with pictures. It gave good details of what parts to connect where, how to connect the computer, how to load the software, and most importantly how to fit, level, and calibrate the print head.

I got lost in the task in hand. I wasn’t aware of the time passing, but progress was being made, and I remember feeling a solid sense of achievement when I could see the first bright white images appear on the green calibration panel. I looked at my watch and realised it was almost 10:30 p.m. in the evening. I thought I should probably stop for the evening and try to find my hotel and get some sleep.

I had the name of a hotel, and I knew it was located in the nearby town, but that was the limit of the information I had been given before travelling. I found my way into the sleepy, small town, and managed to track down the hotel, but I was faced with some problems again. There was nobody to be seen. The hotel was locked, and my slightly suspect German-language skills were enough to work out from the written information on the board outside that it was an unmanned reception and I needed to type in the entry code on the keypad to get inside.

However, there was no phone number visible on any of the signs outside, and it was starting to snow a little. I didn’t have the entry number, and there was absolutely no one around to help me. I headed back to the car, and I drove around the town looking for an alternative place to stay or anyone I could ask for advice, but everyone was asleep and the whole town was quiet and locked up for the night. I parked the car and contemplated the best course of action. I had a couple of days’ worth of clothes in a bag to cover me for the trip, and I put them all on. It was definitely going to be a cold night and not the most comfortable.

Sleeping in the backseat of a small car is not something I would recommend. I don’t think there is any way I could do it now, but even in my late 30s, it was not a pleasant experience. Before trying to sleep, I called my wife and explained the events of the day. While she was supportive as always, I could hear the concern and worry in her voice, but I was sure it was the right thing to do. At least somebody now knew where I was and what my plans were.

I didn’t sleep very much, and instead, I quite literally counted the minutes until the morning. I was so incredibly cold and had to run the engine for a while just to add some heat and stop shivering. My son, who was a member of The Royal Air Force Air Cadets at the time and was used to camping outside in all types of weather, suggested to me later that sleeping in a car is similar to sleeping in a fridge and I would probably have been warmer sleeping outside.

The next morning, I messaged my wife to let her know I was okay and headed back to the factory as early as I could to continue the machine installation and start to work on printing images onto real panels. Between the screen room supervisor and myself, we managed to get through the printing process, preparing data and printing panels.

Drop-on-demand legend printing has some pretty strong advantages over screen printing or photoimageable processes, especially when applied to small batches. The data is all electronic, so there is no need for any artworks or screens to be made. This cuts quite a lot of time and effort out of the process.

Because the machine is CNC-driven, it is possible to make a very accurate alignment to the copper image etched onto the panel. Microcraft does this very well, and there is a consistency to the results that it is hard to achieve using the screen-printing process. A camera alignment system automates the process to ensure accurate repeatability from panel to panel.

Now, the process has evolved and is well-established with offerings from a few established suppliers. Solder mask machines are also becoming available, which offer similar levels of advantage for printing solder mask on smaller batches of panels. There is even the opportunity to print multiple colours or to print both solder mask and ident ink in the same operation. Print times have improved as well as the print head technology. For the right factory, the inkjet process has some very interesting possibilities.

Returning home from Germany, I took some time to reflect on the experience. It remains one of the most difficult trips I have ever undertaken. I learned quite a lot about myself and gained considerable confidence in my ability to work on a wide range of machinery. But the most significant thought that remains with me from this trip is to enjoy each day. We can never be certain what is around the corner.

Marc Ladle is a director at Viking Test Ltd.

This column was originally published in the May 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine.



The Travelling Engineer, Installment 2


In this second installment, Marc Ladle continues to give a small insight into how the reality of working as a travelling engineer for a machine supplier matches up to the job description. Read on to find out about one of the most difficult trips he had undertaken.

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