Sunday Buzz: Microsoft researcher on the cutting edge with vintage machinery
Some people dream of getting an Academy Award or a big job at Microsoft.
Jim Kajiya already has both. His dream is different: a world-class machine shop where he can help reinvent American manufacturing.
Kajiya is keeping his "distinguished engineer" post at Microsoft Research, where since 1994 he's worked on topics such as computer-graphics software and hardware.
But he is also opening Tolt Machine Works, in the foothill hamlet of Carnation, where he aims to marry big old machines and big new ideas.
The equipment being installed at Tolt includes some behemoths that Kajiya saved from the scrap heap years ago.
"We're taking old machinery and we're gonna give it tender loving care and bring it back to life," he says.
He'd like to see a similar resurrection for the country's industrial base. "This country has to revitalize manufacturing. If we don't do that, as a nation, we're toast."
Construction crews this summer dug two swimming-pool-sized holes at Tolt and filled them with reinforced steel and concrete to provide stable platforms for the massive pieces of milling and measuring equipment Kajiya is bringing in.
He also acquired and relocated a Kent company that specializes in shaping small, intricate metal pieces using electrical currents rather than traditional milling tools.
Kajiya says Tolt aims to make complex, high-precision components at both ends of the spectrum — large parts such as wind-turbine housings or fixtures for building airplane sections, and small parts used for medical devices and the like. He'll start looking for customers once the 10-employee shop is up and running in a few weeks.
After sinking between $5 million and $10 million of his own money into the venture, he says with a laugh, "It's going to hurt if it fails."
The 59-year-old researcher's career path is as unconventional as his long, bushy sideburns and wavy, waist-length hair. He dropped out of college to build electronic-music equipment — his only previous experience running a business, which "failed miserably," he says.
He later worked at the early computer-graphics hardware maker Evans & Sutherland in Salt Lake City. Co-founder Ivan Sutherland helped him go directly into a Ph.D. program at University of Utah and then recruited him to the faculty at Caltech, where he spent 15 years.
In 1996 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored his contributions to the technology behind computer graphics — no statuette, though. The academy's technical achievement award cited his "pioneering work in producing computer generated fur and hair in motion pictures."
Paradoxically, Kajiya's vision of a cutting-edge machine shop starts with some vintage equipment that Tolt is resurrecting from the dead.
A centerpiece will be one of the world's biggest coordinate-measuring machines, originally sold by Italian manufacturer D.E.A. to Boeing in the late 1980s.
Its probes could travel a span of more than 40 feet along the curved surface of an airplane component or tooling and "measure that entire surface — thousands of points" with an accuracy of a few thousandths of an inch, says Bill Lashly, a Boeing Commercial Airplanes quality inspector at the time and now a BCA business-systems analyst.
Such measuring tasks can be difficult with other equipment; Boeing still uses and buys smaller versions of such machines, says Lashly.
But after Boeing shifted certain work to Wichita, says Kajiya, the huge D.E.A. machine wound up at an Eastern Washington equipment dealer who "stored it in a potato shed."
Kajiya bought it a half dozen years ago but left it with the dealer until "he called me up last November and said, 'The potato shed is falling down; you better come and get the machine.' "
Kajiya's consultant on the D.E.A. machine, Tom Demogines, later discovered that two crucial gearboxes were missing; those were relocated only after the dealer went "looking in the rubble of the shed."
Another massive device at Tolt will be a six-axis German milling machine, acquired from a nuclear-power plant in South Carolina, that can handle 25-foot-long slabs of metal. Moving it to Carnation on eight or nine trucks cost more than buying it, says Kajiya.
But the equipment is far from junky, says Demogines. "They may get rusty and they might have old controls, but the frames of the machines are very sound." Add some updated electronics and, "Voilà, they become a very useful machine at a very low cost."
Because of the recession and the widespread outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing overseas, there's also a lot of more modern equipment on the market. A squad of yellow industrial robotic arms waiting to be deployed at Tolt comes from a plant that used to manufacture mag wheels. "That factory moved to China," says Kajiya.
He won't divulge his ideas for moving the machine-shop sector into the future, except to say they involve "some new physics as well as new information technologies."
Right now, he's focused on reviving the machinery, getting the 30,000-square-foot shop operational by next month, and establishing Tolt as a quality operator.
"Any fool can go out and buy machinery," Kajiya says.
"Job No. 1 for us is to be a good machine shop first."
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