The Grabbing Game

In Asian cultures, there is a traditional event that takes place on a child’s one-year birthday that portends the child’s life choices going forward. Called Zhua Zhou in China, it’s literally “first birthday pick” or The Grabbing Game, where parents lay out a collection of items on a mat, and whichever item the child picks to play with indicates the child’s employment prospects, or personality. We did it with our child, being from China, and I won’t commemorate her choice here in writing…

I’ve thought about this lately and wondered what my choice would have been, and wonder if in some way my career trajectory could be tied to my first REAL job out of college. Or my personality. You pick.

Back in October was my wife’s high school reunion, and the fellow graduates/spouses of her small, select private school have over the years become as dear to me as my own high school friends. It provides a great opportunity to catch up, see who’s still with us and how everyone’s kids are doing, and as always we’re just all glad to still be alive and kicking.

Talking about my daughter and her gravitating towards the sciences and engineering careers with a fellow non-grad spouse, somehow the topic turned to my own first job, as a Sales Engineer for Coburn Optical Industries in Muskogee. I’ve written before about Coburn, and how they were a powerhouse in Muskogee growing up — punching way beyond their weight in the optical industry, and how sad that it’s all gone now.

But I digress.

When I was a freshly minted Biz School grad and organizational behaviorist, I had always planned to go to work for Coburn, “the family business,” where my Dad had risen through the ranks after 32 years to become Vice-President of Manufacturing. Six months after graduating from the University of Tulsa, I landed a position as a Sales Engineer, attached to their new vacuum coating division.

One of my first projects involved programming: Coburn had an OEM relationship with Sanyo, reselling their early, non-hard drive PCs to optical labs and manufacturers as part of their lab automation efforts. Being that I knew BASIC and these units came with a BASIC compiler, I was tasked with writing a program that the Sales team could use on the trade-show floor, to demonstrate to lab owners how many pairs of Anti-Reflective coated lenses they would have to sell per year to cover the cost of the quarter-million-dollar turnkey systems we were offering.

After another six months, I was sent to Dallas to help set up a Coburn-owned lab, attached to Lite-Guard, a small and conventional optical lab, from which we would provide a demonstration space and produce lenses for the labs in Dallas, which had become the Center of the Optical World. Pearle Vision, Dean Butler’s LensCrafters — all were headquartered or had their warehouses in Dallas. Our lab was called Starcoat Laboratories.

If you have Anti-Reflective coating on your glasses today, the technology required to produce those coated lenses is basically the same as what I’ll describe below.

WARNING: Amid personal history, there’s a TON of serious geek-tech below. Enter at your own risk, and if you want to get to the meat of my sermon, skip to the bottom 4 paragraphs!

The machinery was incredible, and was worthy of any “Star Wars” or sci-fi kid adoration: made by a Swiss/Italian company called SATIS (and largely manufactured in Milan), it was a mix of high-vacuum technologies from Silicon Valley chip manufacturing, coupled with closely guarded mineral blends that would be melted into a PLASMA VAPOR by an ELECTRON BEAM, controlled by ELECTROMAGNETS that would make the beam perform two right turns into a small crucible, where the minerals would get molten and vaporized. The resulting vapor would flow upwards in the chamber, onto a spinning substrate that held optical lenses.

The lenses were your typical, CR-39 plastic eyeglass lenses, but they had been cleaned impeccably prior to coating. The lenses were hand-inspected and cleaned by a technician, sitting at a laminar-flow table, with a positive airflow flowing outward from HEPA filters to make sure no airborne dust made it to the lenses. The lenses were loaded onto special trays where they would be cleaned in an ultrasonic cleaning tank filled with hot, soapy water. After that, two baths of filtered, pure water to remove the soap. Then a “vapor bath” of isopropyl alcohol, which grabbed onto any water molecules. After they were warmed in this vapor, they’d be dunked into a bath of liquid Freon T-P35: a mix of liquid Freon and alcohol. The last stop was a bath of Freon TF: nothing but liquid Freon to remove any molecular trace of the alcohol.

We changed out these cleaning chemicals weekly. At $60 per liquid pound, it wasn’t cheap and the stuff we categorized as “used” was still amazingly clean. Every Friday we’d bring in any personal electronic items to be cleaned at the end of the day: hairdryers, electric razors, you name it. The incredible evaporative properties of the chemicals made cleaning electrical appliances safe.

After the incredibly thorough cleaning, they’d go into a degassing oven for 4 hours, to remove any remaining impurities from the “pores” of the lens surfaces. Then: into the vacuum chamber.

Thankfully we ourselves didn’t have to engage in the head-to-toe cleanroom suits, only white lab coats, gloves, face masks, and scrupulous hand washing. The lab itself had a positive airflow so the dust and contaminants of regular optical manufacturing weren’t allowed in.

A proprietary program would control what minerals got blasted in what order, to make a hard and reliable coating. The crucible had 4 sections, each with different mineral mixes. At the center of the spinning lens carousel was a tiny, machined quartz disk smaller than a dime and much thinner. As the mineral vapor would be deposited onto the quartz disk, it would change the resonant frequency of the quartz and accurately gauge how much vapor was deposited in NANOMETERS. A screen display would capture this on a graph, and the change between each vapor deposition would trigger a shield popping over the molten metal, to effectively stop the deposition spread at the precise moment.

Because the metal plasma wouldn’t spread or adhere properly in air, the entire chamber was depressurized to make an incredible vacuum. When we’d put the lenses, chemicals, and consumables in the chamber, a conventional vacuum pump would start to work, sucking all the air out of a chamber slightly bigger than an oven. That initial sucking took almost an hour and a half.

The Silicon Valley chip technology took over next — inside the chamber was a 3-foot-wide wall of copper coils near the rear, attached to a large external compressor, measuring 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet tall. The whole time the pump has been pumping, trying to make as perfect a vacuum as possible, this rig has been compressing a special mixture of gases, to make an incredibly cold gas. When the time was right, we’d flip the switch and this ultra-cold gas would flood the copper coils, causing what tiny little bit of moisture that remained in the air in the chamber to FREEZE, and attach itself to the coils. This would cause the vacuum to suddenly get tons better, and we would be ready to turn on the beam. This very low vacuum also kept the beam filament from burning itself to a crisp in the presence of oxygen.

At the halfway point in the process, we would flip a switch which would cause all the lenses in the carousel to flip over — ready for coating the second side. The formula could be the same, or different, depending on the lens and the purpose of the coating.

Once both sides were coated, the system was slowly allowed to cure the lenses (still spinning), and gradually the vacuum was removed — first by pumping the ultra-cold gases back into the compressor, and eventually, the pump is stopped. The lenses were removed, allowed to return to room temperature, and were inspected for quality control and packaging back to the customer.

The telltale pale greenish-blue reflection you see on Anti-Reflective lenses comes from the entire visible spectrum being allowed through the lens, except for a bit of the green area courtesy of the special mixture of the coating. To my memory, this raised the light percentage transmitted through the lens up from 93% to almost 97%. We could regularly check the coating efficacy using a Perkin-Elmer spectrophotometer, showing the green spike on displays.

Aside from all the fascinating tech and geekery, the “Sales” part in my Sales Engineer title meant that in addition to learning the tech, I learned how to sell, teach, and train. I recall being sent to Xerox Sales Training for almost a week, and periodically going to regional optical shows, where I demonstrated our product, cultivated relationships with lab managers and owners, and then called upon them to help make sales or supply information. I had been trained by our Italian engineers Matteo and Silvano, and in turn trained technicians in Toronto, Silver Spring, New York City, and Dallas.

Special thanks to Mike Stewart, my boss back in those days. As with any hindsight, over the years hence I grew to appreciate the lessons you provided that sometimes I didn’t get…

It created in me a perfect blend of geek cred and the ability/interest to train and educate others, which set me on my path as a Project Manager for Capital Systems Group, then as a Microcomputer Specialist for the University of Tulsa at just the right time, as the nascent Internet started filtering its way into universities everywhere, and allowing us to develop new approaches to democratize technology.

When we’re younger we all attempt to grab on to something to make a life, a career, or figure out who we want to be. I can’t figure out which item or items in a Zhua Zhao grouping would equate to the many blended skills I’ve developed, to make me a better person than I was at the beginning. Maybe….all of them?

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