Watch It Made Blog

Posts for February 2008

We like to think both big and small about factory tours in the pages of Watch It Made in the U.S.A.—from tiny glassmaking studios to the giant manufacturing sites of heavy industry. Sometimes when we think big, we really think, well, BIG. This is why we chose to cover two tours of NASA facilities in the 4th edition of our book. We sketch them out below, but for the full coverage and all the information you need to take these tours, pick up a copy of Watch It Made.

Far out in Florida

No manufacturing operation in the United States is more ambitious than NASA's program for manned spaceflight at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral (near Orlando) in Florida. Visitors get a detailed view of our past, present, and future technology for propelling astronauts into orbit, to the moon, and perhaps one day even to Mars. In some ways, it's the ultimate factory tour.

The basic tour, which you take on a bus, is available every 15 minutes and makes three stops. The first, Launch Complex 39 (LC 39), is where the space shuttles take off. A nearby observation platform, rising 60 feet high, gives visitors a fine view of the two immense launch pads. You can also see the Launch Control Center and the vast Vehicle Assembly Building, perhaps the biggest hangar in the world. Another stop is the facility in which NASA prepares parts of the International Space Station (ISS). You can walk through a mockup of the interiors. You also visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center. This cavernous facility preserves memories of the Apollo program, which culminated in the moon landings. The centerpiece is one of the original giant Saturn V rockets, the size of a building.

You can also take exciting special tours of the Kennedy Space Center. For details on these, see our full writeup in Watch It Made in the U.S.A.

California dreaming

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, is the Cape Canaveral of unmanned space exploration. Its teams of scientists and engineers, who have included the venerable Carl Sagan, work in numerous departments to plan, design, and build the spacecraft and satellites that probe our solar system. Among JPL's famous projects are the Viking Mars landers, the Voyager deep-space probes, the Galileo orbiter that explored Jupiter, and, more recently, the Mars rovers and the Cassini trip to Saturn. JPL also creates and commands satellites for monitoring Earth and its atmosphere and for studying the cosmos beyond our solar system.

The research and operational areas of JPL sprawl over a large campus. Depending on the interests of visitors and the focus of current missions, tours may visit any of several sites. After a multimedia presentation on the history of JPL, visitors see models of past NASA spacecraft and interactive exhibits which illustrate related science and engineering. Other areas you may visit include the mission-control center: the revealing images of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn's moons that stunned the scientific world were received here. Given NASA's recent activities on Mars, you may also see the area where JPL tests new vehicles for exploring the Martian surface.

Amazed already? For the full details, consult Watch It Made in the U.S.A., where we also cover factory tours involving aerospace and aviation for use on Earth.

Posted By Karen Axelrod Feb 28, 2008

"If music be the food of love," begins Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "play on." For those who are still dieting after a surfeit of sweets during the holidays, music may indeed suffice on Valentine's Day. Lots of factory tours involve music in one way or another. We summarize three below, but see our book Watch It Made in the U.S.A. for many others.

Highly strung

Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton: that's a nice trio for a guitar company to have on its list of customers. Indeed, since C.F. Martin Sr. started Martin Guitar in 1833, Martin acoustic guitars have acquired a loyal following among over a million musicians, whether they perform in arenas or in coffee-shops. On a tour of the facility in Nazareth, PA, you see many of the 300 separate steps—most still done by hand—of making a Martin guitar.

It takes between three and six months to make each instrument. Working in concert (sorry) with a variety of tools, craftspeople bend, trim, shape, cut, glue, fit, drill, finish, sand, stain, lacquer, and buff. Notice how a dovetail neck joint is carefully trimmed and then checked to ensure a proper fit with the body. After the tour, you can try your hand at playing some ax on a current model.

Including Neil Young and Bonnie Raitt, the client list of Taylor Guitar in El Cajon, CA, is equally illustrious. From a humble beginning in 1974, the company now builds thousands of acoustic and electric guitars every year. On the tour, you learn that one of the co-founders accidentally revolutionized the neck-attachment process because he did not know how to make the traditional dovetail to fasten the neck to the body. Instead of using glue, which impedes the transference of resonance and creates a deadening effect, he planed the surface of the body flat and bolted on the guitar neck, resulting in greater stability and a more articulate tone.

Now highly technological and adhering to rigid standards, the manufacturing process includes the use of computer-guided lasers, diamond-tipped cutting tools, and an ultraviolet light that bakes each guitar for 23 seconds to cure its finish. Meanwhile, the company's repair department tries to salvage damaged guitars—whether dropped during air travel or triumphantly trashed at the climax of a punk-rock show.

All keyed up

It takes a year and about 12,000 parts to make a Steinway piano. At the Steinway headquarters in Long Island City, NY, more than 500 craftspeople, trained by apprenticeship, hand-build 2,800 pianos every year.

A high point of the tour is the rim-bending. Six people carry a laminated rock-maple board (often with 18 layers) to one of the piano-shaped presses. They wrestle the wood, bending it around the press, and then hammer, screw, and clamp the wood into place. Each rim stays on the press for a day. Once removed, rims "rest" for at least six weeks in a sauna-hot darkened room.

Soundboards are custom-fit into each piano. Workers hammer in the bridge to which strings will be attached. Saws hiss and the floors vibrate with rhythmic banging and drilling. Cast-iron plates suspended in air wait for installation into rims. In the stringing department, workers attach each metal string to the plate (or “harp”), loop it tightly around the bridge, and then clamp it around the tuning pin. This process is repeated until all strings are installed.

The final stage is tuning. Master voicers in soundproof rooms regulate the key-and-hammer mechanisms (the "action"). To ensure that all hammers rise to the same height, voicers hit each key and watch the corresponding hammer bob like a woodpecker’s head. Once the action is regulated, the voicer inserts it into the front of the piano and tests its musical quality, adjusting its tuning and brightness.

If these tours sound like music to your ears, consult a copy of Watch It Made for more details of each experience and for other tours involving music.

Posted By Karen Axelrod Feb 12, 2008