Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 9, 2020

Connected to something bigger

Through the pandemic, husband Art has had "gainful employment," making electronic controllers, sensors and other components for a company that manufactures and sells grain dryers to farmers all over the world. When he was in a pinch earlier this year, he suggested I help. I hesitated. After all, I don't know anything about electronics. And truth be told, Art can be quite a taskmaster. But after some deliberation, I decided to give it a shot.

My various duties involved cutting wire into 400 nine-foot-long pieces, cleaning manufacturing oil from metal plates so labels would adhere, spraying circuit boards to protect against moisture, placing gaskets and decals on face plates, and mounting circuit boards. I have even gone with Art to deliver the finished products.

As I said, I don't understand electronics, but Art says that is the point. He explained that when he engages assemblers, rarely do they come with any significant electronic skills. So just as when he was the chief engineer at an electronics manufacturing firm, Art creates drawings and accompanying written instructions that show how components are to be prepared and where they should be placed. The assembler then only needs to learn basic skills, such as soldering, cutting leads, stripping wire and tightening screws.

He added this sometimes leads to amusing remarks when assemblers have questions. Not knowing what the different parts are, they will revert to calling something "that thingy" or "the black bug with the legs" or some other non-technical description.

When Art began his business more than 25 years ago, his intention was to design equipment that others would manufacture. But several customers asked him to do both. He was somewhat reluctant, but eventually agreed. Today, while Art makes some items himself and almost always does the final testing of all products to ensure the units have been properly assembled, he usually hires others to do the routine work.

Family members have pitched in over the years, enjoying the flexible hours and, of course, the money. Our daughters helped finance their college educations and earned money for free-time pursuits. Katie said she liked the cash and the fact it was pretty easy work, although there were some things she didn't like as well.

"I didn't like the monotony of them and if I got some part wrong, a lecture was usually imminent."

I laughed when she told me that. (See my previous comment about Art being a taskmaster!)

Katie is in her last year of grad school in New Mexico, but continues to do work for Art. He packs the components, instructions and needed tools and she returns everything when the parts are finished.

Daughter Mariya also liked the money and that the job wasn't restricted to an 8-to-5 time period. Never liking early-morning work, she appreciated she could make the units on her own schedule. Miriam also was a dependable assembler off and on for several years.

Nieces Gabriela and Larisa got in on the "fun" during summer vacations in Kansas from their home in Bolivia. One of Larisa's tasks was inserting integrated circuits into printed circuit boards. Her sister Gabriela cut wires, crimped them onto connector pins and completed other tasks. She said of her experience:

It was my first job ever! So it was exciting in that aspect. But a little stressful because I was jumping into something I didn't know anything about.

I had no idea about electronics, let alone soldering. But I worked with Mariya and we divided up the tasks, where I would put the wires into the circuit boards and Mariya would solder. And we would have to complete a certain number of boards every so often. I remember going with T�o [uncle] Art to deliver the finish product one time and got to actually hear him talk about and show me what these boards would be used for.

... Lastly, I'll never forget getting my first pay check from Tio! It was amazing! Not having grown up in the U.S., I wasn't part of the culture of getting a job at 16, or whatever it is, where every summer I saw my cousins and their friends with "summer jobs." So I felt pretty cool ending my summer with that paycheck!

Our adopted German "son" Tim interned for Art one summer, after his college professor told him it would give him some practical experience and university credit. Tim said:

My first time doing it was half a day of work and half a day of lecture about electronics. I really enjoyed it because it felt like I always got a private lesson about all of the parts and what they do inside the unit. It actually was the first I really got into manufacturing something. It felt good to produce something with my bare hands ... well and a soldering iron and copper wire.

German "daughter" Nadja also pitched in, soldering for a day or two.

Art designed his first commercial controller in 1985 and did a re-design of that unit in 1998. Just as these units eventually end up in all corners of the globe, parts come from many places as well. He is currently waiting on components from Germany.

The controllers are the most complex unit he makes and around 1,500 of them have been shipped. They, and other units, now "reside" in the U.S., Canada, Norway, France, the United Kingdom and other countries. Art said it was a bit of a thrill to be on a back road south of Edinburgh, Scotland some years back and come upon a farmer pulling one of the mobile dryers with Art's controller.

I'm pretty certain none of us occasional assemblers would want to make it a career. Still, I was surprised how "useful" it made me feel. It was rewarding to know I was both contributing and connecting to something bigger.

Clockwise from upper-left: Gloria attaching the controller circuit board to the face plate; Nadja soldering push-button panels; Katie with a completed controller board; Tim with three mobile dryers; Tim working on a controller board; parts cabinet (left) with controller assembly instructions (lower-right) with circuit boards for a power supply and timer on parts cabinet top; Art running a check test on a newly-completed controller board.

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