Stories from tech 

It’s not supposed to be green

I used to work as a lab technician for a large cheese-producing company. I wasn't IT or anything, but, for our sins, the lab was in charge of maintaining some production analyzers. Specifically, I was in charge of maintaining these production analyzers. In hindsight, the week-long training trip they sent me on and minor pay bump were not a sufficient compensation for the aggravation. A little background on these units:

The company used FT120 rapid analyzers on its milk and cream to optimize the fat, water, salt, and protein content of their cheese and keep it consistent. They're Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) units. If you aren't familiar with it, the tl;dr version is that the machine shoots light through a sample and measures the changes in the wavelengths. It takes about 3 minutes to do tests that would take a lab tech hours. There's also a hydraulic system that pulls the right amount of sample from a bottle, heats it up, and then pumps it through to the analyzer before flushing. Production runs these machines much, much more than the lab does, but they also have exactly zero idea how they work. They also give up immediately with any error message. This was a problem because I worked four 10-hour shifts a week, and the plant runs literally 24/7.

I've got a ton of stories about problems I had with these machines, but I'll just tell a short one for now.

I get in to work at 6am, 2-3 hours before the office folks. Especially on the first day of the work week it gives the lab techs a chance to warm into it and drink some coffee before everyone arrives and gets noisy. Not today though. The supervisor calls the lab practically the second I arrive.

Production supervisor: The FT120 has been broken for the last couple of days. I need it fixed ASAP. My people are taking too much time to run their samples to the lab (this was where we kept the backup unit).

Me: Oh okay, what's wrong with it?

Production supervisor: How the hell should I know?

You should know because the program tells you the error its experiencing.

Me: All right, I'll be out there in a second. Let me get my tools.

Now 99 times out of 100 nothing is actually broken when they say it is. These machines are shockingly sturdy. The problem this time was that the FT120 wouldn't "Zero." The FT120 runs its own sample using premixed zeroing liquid once an hour to adjust for small sensor changes over time. If it comes up out of range, it spits out a bad zero message. Usually it just needs to be cleaned. When I arrived out there, the problem was immediately apparent. The jug with the zero liquid in it was green and had chunks floating in it. The jug is not supposed to be green. There was algae growing in the zero jug because they hadn't cleaned it. More interesting to me was that production had happily poured green liquid with algae chunks into a totally clear bottle and either didn't notice or didn't think anything of it. A fresh jug of zero liquid later and the machine is now running fine.

I know this isn't exactly the normal tech support stuff, but I have a lot more of these stories if people are interested.

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