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Immigraniada: An Odyssey Through Industrial sewing

Gogol Bordello has been a long-favorite music group of mine. The sound is raw, but clean enough to enjoy. They also don’t violate my personal rule about music with too many layers of electric guitar sucking. I’m looking at you, all you Phil-Spector wannabees.

Anyway, their music video Immigraniada is shot, in part, on a garment factory floor. I love stuff like this, because it reacquaints the US with what industry is. With where things come from. That’s the good. The bad is that parts of the set look dirty. Most facilities are clean, both to minimize production fall-out from contamination, and because cleanliness is a critical part of efficiency.

Anyway, from a song celebrating the immigrant story so common in the US, the equipment they show:

Fabric Spreader: Used to evenly spread many layers of fabric in preparation for cutting.

Tacker: Used to tack fabric, as seen on webbing tails or belt loops.

Last: The Lockstitch machine, originally invented by Elias Howe, operated by Eugene Hütz:

ShopTalk: Burl Audio at Jackpot! Recording Studios

I recently had the pleasure of spending an evening at Jackpot! Studios. NARAS was kind enough to host an event with Larry Crane of TapeOp.

Next door, Scott of Hamptone was showing off his amazing collection. Ribbon mics, custom consoles, various products in various stages of development…

In addition, the Burl Audio Mothership was demoed to a receptive audience. Not that it was a scientific listening test, but we A/B against an Apogee box, and the Burl was somewhat preferred for it’s punchier sound.

I met some absolutely great people, including a half dozen (including the aforementioned Scott), who design and make their own gear.

Wherein I Wax Poetic:

This brings me to something that constantly surprises me (and really shouldn’t): Portland, stereotypically home of the hipster, their ex-hippy parents, microbrewerys, and innumerable ‘scenes’, is a manufacturing city.

Creativity drives industry, and vice versa. Hamptone and Jackpot share a building. What better way to develop prototype audio equipment than to throw it in the studio next door?

I see that all over Portland, from makers of fine artistic goods like Bullseye Glass and Gamblin inks to stalwarts like Oregon Iron Works and Precision Castparts. The industry and art drive each-other. More on this later.

A machine, or merely Lean?

In the past, I’ve written about lean manufacturing concepts in the context of the film industry (and CIA) and in one’s home life. Lean (in my context) can be roughly defined as the effort to eliminate anything that doesn’t add value for the customer.

I recently had a surprise case of appendicitis, resulting in an appendectomy at a Kaiser Permenente hospital. I was admitted to the ER at about 0500. I was discharged the same day at about 2100. My surgery was performed by a surgical resident, under the close supervision of a scrubbed-in, experienced surgeon. It was the resident’s 100th or so appendectomy. It was about as close to routine as one could get.


Kaiser claims to be a ‘lean health services provider’, I’ve heard objections to the machine-like process of the Kaiser HMO. Machine or not, I find it to be a fairly comprehensive implementation of Lean/5s principles.

I understand how being the object of a lean hospital process could be unnerving to some people. Things move quickly. One is bar-coded, scanned, analyzed, scanned, medicated, scanned, measured, and prodded in an extremely efficient, clinical way. This gives rise to an inherent conflict: Is it respectful to treat people this way?

I think so. The medical staff was extremely communicative, but things did happen quickly, and according to strict procedure…Even if it was an unfamiliar process to me, it was driven entirely by the need to create a positive patient outcome (i.e, get me healthy).

The people who treated me always had a smile, time for some questions, sometimes a joke, and occasionally time for a brief moment of conversation. However, they didn’t dawdle or dwell, and kept their interactions brief.

Perhaps the root of the objection to the Kaiser process is that getting a person physically healthy quickly isn’t necessarily compatible with taking the time away from medicine to address their anxieties, fears, and mental state. That’s a tough contradiction to manage in a Lean process. Perhaps this is an area for Kaiser to improve, especially for those patients not versed in process and flow management…Those that can’t geek out at what’s happening around them.

Observations on 5s and Lean:

There were a few specific examples that popped out at me during my stay. Lean was defined above. 5s is an organizational methodology that is often implemented to support lean processes.

Poka Yoke (Mistake-Proofing)

My bracelet had a QR code (or similar 2D barcode) on it. Every pill or saline bag given to me, every piece of entered data about my health or physical state started with a scan of my bracelet. The computer recorded everything given to me, and would have alerted at prescription contradictions. The computer also prompted the RN to ask specific questions at specific times, regarding my pain levels, nausea, etc.

At every step, there were checks to ensure mistakes weren’t made. The RN, the ER doc, the resident, and the surgeon all double-checked my physical condition, my chart, and me. They all (I suppose as a matter of procedure) actually bothered to talk to me. Needlessly repetitive?  Well, getting prodded at McBurney’s Point that many times wasn’t fun, and answering the same questions several times was repetitive, but better that everyone actually verify my condition before surgery…

My journey from ER to OR was approved as soon as an OR slot opened up, but paused until everything was in order, including discussions with the bartender (anesthesiologist). My move out of the OR recovery room to a regular patient room didn’t happen until I met certain criteria…The process was set up not only to prevent mistakes, but make sure I was in the right place with the right equipment, were a problem to appear, or a mistake to be recognized.

Andon (White Boards for Visual Organization and Status)

Kaiser was big on white boards. There were several at every nurse’s station. There was one by every patient bed. The ER patient whiteboards had spaces for the patient’s name, attending doc, RN, charge nurse, and actions to be taken. The recovery room whiteboards had slots for the RNs by shift, CNAs by shift, the name I preferred, immediate issues, etc. It was a fast way to communicate important data. Notably, prognosis was kept off the white boards.

Muda (wasteful activity)

When in the ER, the doctor discussed several paths forward. I could undergo a CT scan, confirming the appendicitis condition. Or, given the presentation of classical symptoms, I could move straight to a laparoscopic appendectomy. The CT scan would have ensured that surgery was the correct path, but at the cost of a fairly heavy radiation dose. It would have covered the hospital’s proverbial arse, but at a long-term risk to me. They could have protected themselves, and externalized a longer-term cost on me.

Kaiser ultimately gave me the option of a CT scan, if I wanted it. But that they didn’t jump to a CYA mentality and immediately order the scan spoke well of their effort to root out waste in the process of getting me healthy.

I should note that some people have been Kaiser patents for over a half century, so the basis for certain process decisions and improvements come from an analysis of a remarkably huge datapool, and an expectation that many current patents will be Kaiser patents for well into this century. Kaiser doesn’t want to treat cancer caused by a needless CT scan 50 years from now.

Seiketsu (Standardization)

There was identical equipment in the wall manifold above each bed. Vacuum pump, O2, medical air, isolated outlets for sensitive equipment, code buttons, etc. There was an identical computer interface in each room…No searching for little things, or having to jump amongst rooms to find things. This is typical in hospitals, but is often not recognized.

Seiso (Cleanliness)

Important for a hospital…Waste receptacles were clearly marked. Sharps to the sharps bin, biological waste to the red bin, basic trash to the trash bin, linens/washables to the stainless cart…The room cleaning started as soon as I left, which brings us to:

Shitsuke (Sustain: The hard one)

The hardest part of a 5s or Lean scheme isn’t getting there, it’s maintaining it. Having the self-discipline to keep improving is important. Kaiser seems to be fairly good at this. Hopefully, they can sustain in.

Post Process:

There was no rush to shove me out of the hospital in fact, the RNs, CNAs, and surgical resident were very insistent that I meet certain criteria before I was allowed to even think about leaving. When the criteria were met, I was sent home with prescriptions in hand, and comprehensive discharge instructions. The RN discharging me went over the instructions, and expressed surprise at some additions. This was a good sign, it indicated that continual improvement was happening, and the instructions weren’t some 20 year old stale document.

I got a call a couple days later asking about my condition, with follow-up questions. They verified my appetite was normal, and my body was more or less functional, then the scheduled a post-op visit.

On my way out of the room, the RN suggested that I take the box of tissues to have in my car, because they had already been opened and would have to be thrown out otherwise. How’s that for minimizing waste?

Poka Yoke

So, this is a wonky post, inspired by my time in some of the largest factories in the world. They all claim to be ‘Lean’…And all are, to a certain extent. Instead of writing volumes of NDA violating prose about those experiences, I want to write about some specific lean concepts that seem to be second-tier.

There are many mixed feeling about lean manufacturing, it’s risks, it’s benefits, and the usefulness of the whole concept. I understand the criticism, especially when companies focus on inventory/tooling reduction while ignoring process improvements, or  while ignoring their employee’s input and call it ‘lean’.

There are, however, two pillars of the Lean process that I feel are indisputably important, and often neglected. The first is a general respect for people. People are not only human, but the source of innovation, improvement, and thus profit. Treat humans humanely, and reap the benefit…Companies that don’t are, in essence, investing in a capital asset and only using half of its capabilities. Humans aren’t just a pair of hands. They have brains too. Why not use them? After all, you are paying for them.

The second is concept Poka-Yoke, or ‘mistake proofing’. I will write a little bit about Poka Yoke, because writing about respect for people would require my not ranting.

A simple Google search shows the (anecdotal) neglect of some lean concepts:

  • Search: “Lean” (“poka yoke” OR “Mistake Proofing” OR “mistake proof”) –414,000 results.
  • Search: “Lean” (“respect for people” OR “respect people” OR “respect workers”) –130,000 results
  • Search: “Lean” (“inventory reduction” OR “inventory management” OR “inventory cost”) –2,000,000 results
  • Search: “Lean” “inventory” –16,000,000 results.

Inventory reduction is, perhaps, the logical outcome of other Lean concepts/efforts…Not really the best starting place, even though that is where the effort is, since inventory is so easy to measure. People are the starting place, and their tools are things like Poka Yoke.

On Etymology (A Digression)

First, the term ‘Poka Yoke’ is Japanese in origin. It roughly translates to ‘error avoidance’. The term originally was ‘Baka-Yoke’, or ‘fool-proofing’, but if you look back a few paragraphs, respect for people is important. To paraphrase Shiego Shingo: Since everyone makes mistakes, the only true fool is the one that doesn’t learn from mistakes. Hence: Mistake-proof, not fool proof. Not Baka-Yoke, because we all err.

Back to the Point

Poka Yoke might mean using the key (or key fob) to lock your car, instead of the interior lock, thereby ensuring your keys are in your hand, and not in the ignition when locking your car.

It means minimizing risk through process.

In the film industry, we often used high-wattage lighting, and there were basic processes to protect ones-self…Touching a high voltage Bates connector with the back of your hand, so if you are shocked, your contracting muscles close your fist on empty air, not on the un- or badly-grounded connector.

On a related note: Bates connector was designed (decades ago), so it could only be attached in one orientation, preventing live and ground legs from being crossed.

It’s any process or mechanical implementation designed to prevent mistakes.

I saw it applied in the film industry, I see it applied in manufacturing, and one can generally see it everywhere. From plugs that can only go in one way to cars that won’t start unless they are in PARK…People called it all sorts of things, but it can be boiled down to a simple concept:

When possible, eliminate the possibility of mistakes.

 Poka Yoke at Home

The interesting thing is applying this concept to one’s home life. As mentioned with the key fobs, there are ways to improve even the simplest of daily routines.

Do you keep your coffee mug to the left of your laptop, even though you are right-handed? Prevent a spill, switch it up.

Do the garbage and recycling buckets in the kitchen look the same? Do they need to? Does this ever cause confusion?

Do shoes end up everywhere in the front hall? Huge factories lay tape down to define where pallets sit and people walk. Maybe a nice square of dark carpet would suggest a place for shoes to call home.

It’s the little stuff that makes a difference, but there is room for improvement everywhere.


On customer service…

My current job takes me to factories where ESD (electrostatic discharge) control is critical. One important control point is the human body. We all shuffled on carpet as a kid, then tried poking unsuspecting people to shock them. Well, I did, but I was strange.

Anyway, imagine that same shock going through your iPhone 4S Qualcomm MDM6610 baseband chip during assembly if a factory worker shuffles around a bit…Poof, you now have an iPod Touch. Or if that charge goes through an airplane’s avionics boards while a mechanic is repairing it…Or through the FPGA in a hospital EKG machine. Preventing a static charge from building in the body is important. To that end, I have to wear special conductive heel straps that connect my body to the floor electrically. These are annoying…

Enter Keen. They are a Portland hometown favorite, and they even started making some boots in the US, after using an overseas sourcing strategy for their entire existence. They sell shoes they claim are ESD-safe. I needed to know that the shoes actually passed the correct ESD test, so I tried emailing, with no expectation of a response. An email to customer service was answered by the developer of the shoe, which kind of rocks. No boilerplate, but a real answer. From the guy/gal who actually designed the thing.

Ordered. Will share my own test results soon.


Shoes arrived, and passed a quickie multi-meter test. Most importantly, they are comfortable. I brought them to China on my last trip, but wasn’t in a factory that needed to enforce ESD protocols. Next time though…

Around the World in Two Weeks

In an odd twist of events, I had a personal trip right before a work trip, and ended up combining the two. It resulted in the following (check-that-off-the-bucket-list) itinerary:

I had, by (mostly) accident, ended up having to fly around the world. The unfortunate thing is that I didn’t get to spend a huge amount of time outside airports I traveled through or the facilities I was working at. I will note that Turkish Airlines and EVA Airlines are quite nice, and reasonably priced. It turns out the flag carriers of small countries are a huge source of pride, and provide excellent service.

Mogami W2901 (And other adventures in re-purposing)

Since I transitioned from media/film/audio production to a job in manufacturing/engineering, I’ve noticed or been the cause of some neat re-purposing from the film industry to the manufacturing industry. The robustness demanded by the film industry has made certain specialized products very useful in manufacturing tooling.

Mogami W2901

I had a need for a high-strength, lightweight, cheap, and small high-flex-cycle cable. Sourcing something that meets a bunch of contradicting demands (strong and lightweight? flexible and durable? cheap at the same time?) makes for an interesting day at work. Luckily, I knew that an appropriate type of wire existed. I ended up with Mogami W2901:

177,000 flex cycles rated, Polypropylene filler thread for strength, 176 N breaking strength (about 40 pounds)…It was everything I wanted, at about $0.50/foot. It’s typically found in professional audio as a lavalier or microphone cable. If it’s good enough for daily use in a TV studio or on a rainy film set, it’s good enough for daily use in a manufacturing environment.

The Mafer Clamp

The day before my adventures in re-purposing lav cables, a sales rep comes in to demonstrate a product of theirs. What does he use to clamp it to the table, but a Mafer clamp. I chuckle:

The Matthews Studio Equipment Mafer Clamp

Next, the Manfrotto Magic Arm comes out. I laugh. Too bad the demonstrated product didn’t fit our needs.

Gaffer’s Tape

Not duct tape, not Duck tape, but a Gaffer’s tape. From temporary fixturing to guarding fingers while deburring, I use the stuff almost daily…Just as I would on set.

It’s neat to be able to use mainstays from one industry in another…At some point in the future, I will be able to talk a little about how film industry know-how benefits work with industrial vision systems.

The high cost of low value

It’s been a while since my last post. Life has been busy, but I can always find time to ramble about tools.

At work, I’m lucky enough to have access to high quality tools. Quality tools make me more efficient, and given the value of my time to my employer, paying for said tools is a no brainer.

As an example, the hex keys I use at work are Bondhus Goldguard ball-ends. They run double the cost of other, cheaper sets, but the rarely break, and I very rarely strip stainless screw heads. At $14 for a 9 piece metric set, they pay for themselves if I avoid stripping/breaking, then wasting time extracting a single screw. That’s a good deal. $14? That’s nothing for a tool I use every day. They would be a good deal at ten times that cost.

It’s all about value, cost is a secondary metric for tools.

Amusingly, Bondhus, the maker of the aforementioned hex set says this on their website:

Bondus doesn’t manufacture junk.

I guess that’s one short way of saying value is more important than cost. It’s an often-forgotten metric…a lens through which more purchase decisions should be made.