Machining a Pancreas

By Lloyd Graff

Futurism newsletter ran a piece about Liam Zebedee, a software engineer in Brooklyn who struggles with diabetes while trying to live the semblance of a normal life.

He built his own “artificial pancreas” because he was frustrated with the daily hassle of dealing with hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and pharmacies.  He started with a good piece of hardware, an insulin pump.  He then developed his own software and purchased the necessary hardware for $979.  He pays $225 per month for off-the-shelf glucose sensors plus his monthly cost for a supply of insulin.

“I know that it’s pretty insane to run your basic metabolism on untyped JavaScript code,” Zebedee writes.  “But if you were in my shoes, you’d realize it was safer than going to the hospital, intentionally or not.”

The homemade “artificial pancreas” shows the hand of ingenuity that builds businesses out of ideas.  In a small way our machinery business has been grappling with a mechanical challenge which most of the “smart people” we consulted told us would likely end in failure.

We do not tackle a lot of setups on screw machines these days because if folks want us to do it, it usually means that they cannot do it themselves and don’t know anybody who can.  We took on this one for several good reasons that seemed to trump the obvious impediments.  It was a big opportunity to sell machines, but failure would be very expensive.

The job was to thread both sides of a 4-1/2” long, ¾”-diameter pipe.  The customer made a couple million of them a year, but their process either on CNC lathes or screw machines and threading machines was laborious and even dangerous.

On the face of it, at least to me, who did know enough to understand why they had done it the old-school laborious way for 50 years, it was quite doable on a Wickman.  Thread chasing on one end, die head threading on the other, a piece of cake.

What I did not know was that steel pipe, 4-1/2” long, presents nasty problems for threading.  Pipe is not uniform in surface quality, wall thickness, and machinability.  There are significant differences in the products of each manufacturer.  It is not perfectly straight, it will wobble—more the longer you attempt to machine.  Cutting tools usually are not durable enough to compensate for the roughness and wobble of pipe.

Wickman has a husky and generally quite useful thread chasing attachment for the end of the pipe closest to the spindle.  Unfortunately, it was really not expected to cut steel pipe to connect a hot water heater.  It normally rests on an aluminum base on top of the cross slide, but to our own dismay, we consistently got unacceptable chatter using the attachment.  After tearing our hair out in frustration, Javier, our engineer, mentioned that at his previous job they had occasionally used a steel base when chasing difficult stainless steel components.  Luck had it that we had a scruffy old steel base on our parts shelf.  To our shock the chasing worked.

We ran into similar issues trying to do die head threading on the other end.  The cutting tools broke, the die heads fell apart, chatter was a constant companion.  We put a Logan air threading attachment on to replace the mechanical one.  Better, but still not good enough.  Then we slowed down the clutch by changing gears.  Still no good.  Finally, we put it on the slowest possible threading speed, and we got a good thread, but the cutters had a maddeningly short life.  It required a different coating to finally make it work.

Through all of the experimenting we labored with four different varieties of seamless pipe.  Only one worked reasonably well.  We asked our customer for more pipe.  They could not seem to provide it for us.  “Purchasing” and “Politics” continually got in the way of providing us more raw material to perfect the process.  We offered to buy it ourselves, pick it up ourselves at another plant, do anything to move the process, but the pipe did not come.  Finally ten 10-foot lengths arrived.  Not enough for a full run off, but enough for samples and a good tryout of the process.

“We did it.”  At least we think so for now.  Not a homemade, artificial pancreas, but a satisfying, improvised solution to the problem for Graff-Pinkert.

Question: Tell us about an “impossible” job that you solved.

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6 thoughts on “Machining a Pancreas

  1. Joey Vettleson

    This article pissed me off!!! I wanted to see someone actually make a pancreas. I have friends and relatives that would benefit from this and all this was is a pile of crap about threading a fricken pipe. Click bait at its best. You should re-think your headlines!!!!! Owning a machine shop makes us think outside the box and hope to help people with impossible tasks. This was not expected!

  2. r in nyc

    Do you know what you see when you look up Engineer in the dictionary?

    Someone who does precision guesswork based on unreliable data based on unreliable data provided by people of questionable knowledge and expertise.
    see also – wizard, magician…


  3. Jerry Johnson

    Full Turnkey for a gravity fed Sprinkler Mfg.

    Program and thread each end of various lengths of seamless pipe, ranging in length from 4 inches to 10 feet, fully automated with no manual operator intervention. Customer required our “System” to produce a “package of fully machined pipe lengths” per each of their customer’s orders. Every customer had a different “package length requirement” based on the size of the building in which the gravity fed sprinkler system was to be installed. Programming changeover from one customer’s “Package” to the next was required to be fully automatic, and written into our programming so as to eliminate programming downtime at customer lot changeover.

    Joey: Medtronic makes an artificial pancreas (approved by the FDA). Our first grandchild developed Type 1 diabetes at age 2. She has the Medtronic unit, and it is a blessing, working 24/7 to keep her BS in check.

    1. Joey Vettleson


      That is exactly what I was hoping to read about. I did not know they had them already and was hoping somebody had tried at least to manufacture them. I don’t read these articles very often, but this one caught my eye, so I read it and was disappointed. I will do some research on that.

      I wasn’t knocking the process in the article. I was upset with the way they presented this article. Diabetes is sort of a sensitive subject for my family.

      Thanks for the info.

  4. Ben

    I’ve been T1D for 46 years, working with screw machines setups for 17 years, and I enjoyed this article. In year 1 (of the 17) I heard about a 6:00pm PMPA dinner meeting in Dayton OH at which Fred Indoe was going to talk about the new Somma RQC system. I drove 2.5hrs there and back, and started the next morning with Herman Somma on our own datum point designs. We’ve achieved big reductions in elapsed time to set up, and most importantly, setups are now performed by all operators. Good business for Somma, too.

  5. fred f

    Waht’s the one KEY takeaway from this article?
    NEVER throw ANYTHING away in a Job Shop!

    The steel base on the shelf


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