Organize these screws!
March 29, 2012 1:44 PM   Subscribe

People who like to take things apart - I need to find a way to keep roughly thirty screws organized when a housing is removed and replaced. They all go in the same size hole, and they're not all the same screws.

I've got a housing with some equipment underneath it that's held on to the equipment base with roughly thirty screws. There's a gasket between the housing and the base, and due to manufacturing variances the same screw does not always fit in all the holes. Nominally, every screw should be size eight, but the design allows for the length of the screw to be sized up or down one step if needed.

The problem that is occurring is that maintenance goes in to work on the equipment, removes the housing, and now has a pile of screws that they can't get to fit back in the holes. It's time consuming and often difficult (if they're working in the dark) to get all the screws back in their proper holes. I've got a couple of ideas how to solve this, but if you are someone that regularly takes things apart and puts them back together, how would you approach this disassembly problem?

Ideas I've considered:
-using captive screws so they stay with the housing when it's removed
-color coding the screws and holes (all eights painted green, all sevens painted yellow, whatever)
-training the maintainers to start at a specific point on the housing and place each screw in a little numbered cup so they can do the process in reverse
-having lots of spare screws around so they can find the right one from a tray rather than digging through the pile of screws they just removed, and then sorting the old screws later and returning them to the trays

Any other ideas?
posted by backseatpilot to Technology (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would place the removed screws into a piece of cardboard or foam in the same spot they
were removed from.
posted by alikins at 1:50 PM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I like alikins' idea.

Added suggestion: if you can take a picture so you can at least see in what order things are, print it or something and label the spots "A" "B" "C" and so on so you don't forget which side the lineup starts on :)
posted by Madamina at 1:58 PM on March 29, 2012

Yeah, trace out the shape of the housing on something like foam or cardboard (if only doing once) or cut a piece of wood and drill some holes for each screw (if doing on a regular basis) and as the screws come out you put them in the 'jig' you just made at the spot that correlates with the spot on the housing. Make a mark on the housing and on the screw holding jig so you can always start at the right spot to put them back. Gluing the old gasket to the wood or the cardboard would make it even easier to orient the jig properly.
posted by bartonlong at 1:59 PM on March 29, 2012

Alikins has it.

Similar things I have done is put the screws (or bolts, or whatever) on the floor in the same pattern they are in the equipment.

Or you can take them out, lay them out next to the equipment in the right pattern, take a photo and print it, with any annotations you need. Produce a few laminated copies and you are done.
posted by deadwax at 2:00 PM on March 29, 2012

So this is not a case of you needing to keep track of the screws, which would have an easy answer, but building/designing something so the maintenance folks can easily do it?

Can you build some sort of template they can carry with them? The template is the same size/shape as the part with all the holes in it and would have diagrams as to which screws go in which hole? I guess this is no better than color coding everything.
posted by bondcliff at 2:00 PM on March 29, 2012

Use painter's tape to tape each screw to the housing next to its hole.

Or draw a diagram of the hole pattern on a sheet of paper and place or tape the screws on the corresponding parts of that paper.
posted by The World Famous at 2:11 PM on March 29, 2012

Take a photo of the housing, print on letter-size paper (scale up or down as appropriate), pierce paper with real screws in pictured locations as you disassemble.
posted by klarck at 2:37 PM on March 29, 2012

Best answer: As a taker-aparter of things other people have designed, I definitely think that if you have the option, captive screws. If you don't, color coding or stamping a "7" "8" or "9" into the housing where the screw goes will allow them to choose the right screw.

Or, use the same size screws and instruct them to place washers onto the screws to make the ones that are too long fit. Followed by stamping the number of washers next to the hole. Or come up with some kind of design that gives some clue as to the right screw to choose. Often there will be a pattern, like "All screws are #8 except for the corners which are #9 and the middle bottom which is #7".

The painter's tape is fine if it's a one-off deal, but for ongoing maintenance kinds of stuff, there needs to be a little more permanent and streamlined solution.
posted by gjc at 2:45 PM on March 29, 2012

Best answer: Whatever you come up with has to require very little additional effort at the start of the job. If the technician has to fetch a giant wooden template or print out a PDF or tape each screw down (to a potentially dirty surface that doesn't take sticky tape very well) he's just not going to bother.

With that in mind, the captive screws sound like the best idea: no additional effort, no additional training, and very little upfront cost. Also, you know you're doing something wrong when you replace a captive screw with a non-captive one, so it's not something that's going to fall out of use later.

After that, color-coding is probable the next best option, except you mention sometimes the housing has to be replaced in the dark and it's pretty easy to forget to paint a replacement screw a different color.

On preview, I really like gjc's idea with the washers. In fact, can you just braze a stack of washers onto the outside of the hood so that, in effect, all holes take the same length screw?
posted by d. z. wang at 2:50 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

To start with, this seems like a flaw in the design of the item but, unless you are manufacturing it, there's not much you can do about that. Is it possible to always use the shortest length screw, or does that risk the screw pulling out? If the seats where the screws fit are always the same thickness and the shortest length screws are long enough there, why wouldn't they be OK all the way around? You could provide the maintenance people with a supply of the shortest length screws and tell them to discard any that are longer and, over time, the problem will disappear. Otherwise, a facsimile of the housing in plywood, aluminium or whatever works, with holes in the same places for the screws to be put in on disassembly would work.

If you can make it happen, captive screws would be the ideal way to go. As someone who often pulls thing apart (and almost as often puts them back together) , I always appreciate captive screws.
posted by dg at 3:31 PM on March 29, 2012

I'm not clear on how this item is assembled, but trying to line up 30 captive screws and all get them started in their holes could possibly be far more work than just sorting through a pile of screws.

Tracing the gasket onto a piece of cardboard and using it as a screw holder is what I do in situations like this. Alternately, you could use different types of screws (philips head, allen head, torx, etc.) for different positions, and have some kind of stamp or marking on the housing indicating what goes where.
posted by zombiedance at 3:46 PM on March 29, 2012

In my limited experience, taping them next to the hole is the easiest, and paint pens are the next easiest.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:40 PM on March 29, 2012

When I was taking apart horribly-designed Dell laptops, which had 84 screws of exactly the same diameter and threading but subtly different lengths which, if interchanged, could crack the motherboard, I got in the habit of laying out a piece of masking tape sticky-side up before disassembly. Then, as I disassembled the laptop, I would stick each screw to the piece of masking tape. I always took them apart in the same order, and when I put it back together, I would just start from the end of the tape and work backwards.
posted by KathrynT at 5:52 PM on March 29, 2012

First answer, best answer.
I usually draw a crude diagram of what I'm taking apart on a piece of paper or cardboard, and then I place the screws at the location they are on the actual device. If I have to move it I've used a piece of foam (like bead or urethane foam) and I've also used the sticky tape idea. But the visual guide of where they go is vital. Done this for decades now.
Pirsig actually recommends this method in Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Good luck.
posted by asavage at 6:12 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming the screws screw down into blind threaded holes in the base.

If the housing isn't too big and heavy to be easily and accurately maneuvered, you could replace the screws with threaded studs of an appropriate length which screwed down into the threaded holes and stuck up out of the base when the housing was off.

Then, instead of 30 varying screws to replace, you'd have 30 identical nuts, and you could use acorn nuts and even a torque wrench for optimally uniform sealing pressure on your gasket-- and the whole operation would be much quicker because the housing would be aligned on the base automatically, and socket wrenches are easier to use and faster than screwdrivers.

This wouldn't work if you have to slide the housing to disengage it from the equipment underneath after the screws come out, of course.
posted by jamjam at 12:51 AM on March 30, 2012

Response by poster: These are all great answers, thanks. Unfortunately, the housing is... large. It takes two people to remove it. Plus there are about thirty of them, so maintaining traces of the exteriors of all of them is just going to add an extra level of inconvenience, I think. It was originally suggested to use washers, but having screw heads sticking out bothers me in a deeply anal retentive way, and I don't want people snagging clothing or getting lacerations from sharp edges.

I think option 1 will be captive screws if they'll fit, followed by getting an index that they can jam the screws in as they're taken out.

Thanks again!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:04 AM on March 30, 2012

Sometimes if you are working with same thread size screws of different lengths you first place the mating parts together and then put the screws loosely in the holes. You then rearrange the screws in their holes until they all protrude an equal height. They should then be in their correct locations. This is an old trick used for assembling motorcycle engines.
posted by Raybun at 11:13 AM on March 30, 2012

Can you etch the screw sizes next to the holes on the housing itself, or (for when repairs need to be done in darkness) possibly add braille-like bumps next to the holes? I'm picturing one bump for the shortest screw, two bumps for the next largest, etc.
posted by mezzanote at 11:27 AM on March 30, 2012

Sorry, just had another idea - car mechanics sometimes use magnetic bowls to keep track of small parts - this might be a possibility if the housing is metal and the bowls or other magnets can stick to the housing itself.
posted by mezzanote at 11:36 AM on March 30, 2012

When I used to work on laptops I'd use small, single level fishing tackle box. You can use a sharpie to put numbers in the bottom and then put them in the box in the order you took them out, then backwards to reinstall.
posted by jopreacher at 5:38 PM on March 30, 2012

maybe a template, but instead of cardboard or foam, magnetic?
posted by at at 8:10 PM on April 1, 2012

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