I pride myself in being mechanical but after every job where assembly is required, I inevitably find myself with an odd piece left over.
No matter how careful I am, there it will be, the shiny lock-washer, the worn metal gasket or the oddly shaped part that bears no resemblance to an anything in the schematics.
It always leaves me perplexed - but it rarely results in anything serious.
When I am done, the garbage disposal doesn't screech, the vacuum won’t smell like burning rubber and the lawn-mower rarely attacks. The only consequence is yet another item tossed into a junk-drawer already full of parts that the world runs quite nicely without.
But I worry about the symmetry of this.
If I have an extra part, somebody is short one. While I am chucking something into the junk drawer, someone else is making an angry call to customer service.
But maybe not.
Manufactures are getting smart.
They know which parts are likely to spring out of the box and roll under the refrigerator – so they toss in an extra because it is cheaper to do that than to take an angry phone call.
On the other hand, sometimes the reason for the extra part is just plain weird.
Let me tell you about that.
Back in my steel foundry days, I volunteered to work shut-down, the time during which factories are torn apart and refurbished.
My job was to assist our best mechanic, a meticulous but arrogant man, in over-hauling The Shaker.
The Shaker does precisely what its name suggests. It shakes. Specifically, it shakes black hard-packed sand out of huge molds.
It is a humungous beast. Compared to a tyrannosaurus, it is twice as big, four times as loud and eight times as mean. When it is running, you want to be as far away as possible, when it is not running, you want to be further away because the thing reeks from the rotting starch and sugars that foundries use to bind the sand together. In other words, it smells sixteen times as bad as any dinosaur. But having said all that, without The Shaker, the foundry could not function.
So for three days, a mechanic and I ripped this beast apart and meticulously cleaned everything, being careful to arrange each piece on the floor in the sequence we would use to put it together. Only then did we begin the slow methodical process of reassembly.
Sure enough, after The Shaker was completely assembled, the foreman came over to inspect our work and asked, “What's that?”
“What's what?” we asked in return.
He pointed to an o-ring, lying in the middle of the floor, obscured by dust.
Oh crap! Three days of work and we had an unidentified part.
The mechanic went back to his manuals and searched page after page for the part.
Then the foreman joined him because now his job was on the line.
As for me, I felt totally useless because I was just an assistant but I agreed to put in a service call to the manufacture.
Once I got a hold of their support people, they told me to place the part on a copy machine and fax the image to them.
After I sent the fax, one of their mechanics called back – laughing.
“So where does it go?” I asked.
“It don't go anywhere,” he said.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“It's a belly-button.”
“A belly-button,” he said.
He went on to explain. Machines are designed for more than just what you want them to do. Mostly they are designed to be made. Therefore there are parts whose only function is to serve in the manufacturing process.
The o-ring held bearings in place while one assembly was mounted onto another. As the two pieces came together the o-ring was pushed out and fell harmlessly to the bottom of the oil pan where it lived until we came across it.
You may say, it was an artifact of birth. - like a belly-button.
Returning to the shop-floor, I reported to the mechanic and foreman and was shocked to see they already had The Shaker in pieces and were putting it back together.
I told them I talked to support about the o-ring.
“Don't worry about it, kid,” the foreman said, “we found out where it goes.”
“Where's that?” I asked.
Well. Suffice it to say, it didn't go where they thought it did.
© Greg Schiller, 2011
Author: Greg Schiller
Feel free to rummage around my collection of essays and stories at Greg's Garage