Science equipment is a strange thing. So much of it is built by small companies or small research groups and assembled via a process of replacing all the blue tac and gaffer tape for real, valuable components. One of my most prized bits of equipment was made by a company of just 2 people and I know for a fact, it has at last one component held in place with electrical tape. With the stuff I made via my company, Membrane Labs, I am guilty of this too. I have an existing software project that I sell to customers which currently has little to no documentation. I just don’t have the time or resources to make products that are as refined and documented as the likes of Apple or Agilent.

That’s not to say my, or any other small company’s stuff is crap – if anything it’s often quite a lot better – it’s just that often the brilliant designers/scientists are not exactly the best manual writers. No-one’s second thought after having a brilliant idea for an new invention is “I could write the BEST manual for this!”… That’s why at bigger companies there are people employed to write those because they know full well that most scientists would just write “Use it properly, don’t be an idiot”. Which is why so much of my kit has manuals that are less ‘detailed explanations of use’ and more ‘vague guides on how not to blow something up’.

This is a problem I recently came up against when I wanted to start messing with my laser. Now when it was new (~1996) it cost us £120k and although now it’s probably worth about £10 in scrap and would cost a very reasonable ~£20k to replace, so I really don’t want to be responsible for blowing it up. And messing with things like the timing of pulses and remotely tuning it on and off is certainly quite likely to make it go “plink…crack… BOOM”.

Like any diligent researcher who wants to avoid an awkward conversation with his boss, I read the manual very, very, VERY carefully. Now apparently £120k was quite a good price for the laser back in the day and it was top of the range. But it seems even at £120k the margins of a laser are so tight that the manufacturer took the rather odd decision to write one manual for their entire range of lasers.


So the manual has vague explanations which covers umpteen different laser systems. And of course my laser is the exception to the otherwise fairly generic control panel they have shown so none of the pretty pictures match. Which is not a helpful start.

But via a slow process of elimination, I eventually translated the manual to be certain that a laser a lot like mine might be able to not explode… probably. So I went to the next inevitable step – ring the manufacturer. Now this is where small companies tend to differentiate from bigger ones. Giant conglomerates have an army of partially trained technicians – most of whom will mispronounce the kit you need help with and read back any passages of the manual that you’ve already read. However, with small companies, you often get to talk to the one person who built your exact kit and they’re just really excited to talk to someone. So within minutes you have a detailed breakdown of how to solve your problem – and some probably confidential knowledge of how the kit works.

In my case it was a very nice man called Bob who has actually be servicing our laser since it was first installed and was very happy to tell me all about it. With some very reassuring words, he tells me that what I want to do is possible and won’t blow anything up. Although after hanging up, I did realise that while he is the most qualified person to tell me if it will work, he is also the person we will have to pay to fix it if it explodes. Which is a worrying conflict of interest.

But I’m pretty trusting, so with that expert advice and my new found experimental confidence, I turned it on and…. “plink…zzzzZZZZZ….FTZzz” – which were none of the sounds I was hoping for. *sigh*

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Categories: ErrantWritings


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