Where would I find someone who makes single use tools?
March 20, 2015 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Basically I'm looking for whoever the engineer or engineering company would be that creates some kind of specific tool for a one off specific job. Like the Space Needle is built and finished and then, out of nowhere, you need to change a nut and bolt out that was never supposed to be changed. And to do it you need a 40 foot, weirdly angled wrench. Who would build that? And is there a name for the kind of field or specialty this is?
posted by rileyray3000 to Technology (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the company hired to do that kind of work would make their own tooling. In your example, the engineering company that originally built the Space Needle would likely be paid to do the repair, and they would build the wrench to do it. Or they would design the wrench and contract out the manufacture of it.

More likely scenario is that the whatever-it-is was designed to be built with a minimum of specialized tools, and any kind of repair work like what you describe would be solved by adding crap over it to fix it (welding on a structural reinforcement, for example).

If you are actually looking for someone to make a tool for you, I'd check for "engineering services" companies with a focus on mechanical engineering.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Many places have in-house shops to fab those tools. I want to say there have been posts on the blue with pictures of random things someone's dad collected from, say, los alamos, or GE - these strange looking tools/devices where many were one-offs to do some specific task. (Or look at your local university - the physics department usually has a machine shop to make custom gear for experiments, lots of interesting things happen there)

That said, what are your tolerances/requirements ? Do you have design/drawings/schematics ? There are machine shops that may be able to make what you want.
posted by k5.user at 8:16 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

This isn't quite a match for your example, but there is a profession known as "Instrument Artificer" (aka tiffy or tiff) that still exists for ships and oil rigs and submarines and other remote environments. A tiffy's job is to diagnose mechanical/engineering problems and then, if there are no tools available, cobble them together or create them from scratch.
posted by holgate at 8:18 AM on March 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

My dad used to run a precision engineering workshop that did precisely this kind of task. This was not in the US, so I have no clue how common similar operations are there. They did casting and machining in-house, but might outsource particular steps in the manufacturing process. The workshop was located in an area where many small workshops were clustered, allowing greater ease in sharing of expertise, equipment, and income.
posted by bardophile at 8:20 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

A good machine shop should be able to do this, depending on the complexity (and whether you can provide accurate specifications.)
posted by Thorzdad at 8:24 AM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is really location dependent, and really difficult to find sometimes even when they exist, but there are certain old-school machinists who can do work like this. Try and track down machinists who had contracts building big city-works projects back in the 60's and 70's. Basically, the dudes who build the custom parts for bridges usually have the know-how and tooling to do stuff like this.

A couple years ago, when my mentor was refurbishing a coffee roaster, he ran into a problem like this. Granted, this is a much smaller scale than 'the space needle' but its generally the same. During the refurb process, there was a set of bearings that needed to be pulled all at once, at different parts of the machine. The company who manufactured the roasters had gone out of business decades ago…the machine itself was rare, so finding specialty parts for it was even harder.

I knew of a pretty phenomenal group of machinists that were able to come visit us on-site, take measurements and in a few weeks, fabricate a tool to extract the bearings simultaneously. It wasn't anything near cheap. This kind of work is always really expensive…but sweet jesus the quality. Oh man, these types of guys don't dick around.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:25 AM on March 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

Years back I did some work for a company that manufactured high-end aftermarket parts and tools for sports cars. They would get a fair amount of unsolicited business from local scientific and entertainment (film and animation) companies that needed tools or parts that either didn't exist or didn't currently exist for sale, so I'm guessing that the answer to your question is frequently going to be "whoever has a suitable machine shop". A good machinist with the right equipment can make you just about anything, for a price (small run precision machining isn't cheap... I was shocked the first time I saw a bag of custom screws that could fit in my hand, along with the $800 purchase order that went with it).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 8:30 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

A mechanical engineer with access to a machine shop.
posted by entropone at 8:36 AM on March 20, 2015

Duck Duck Go results for Custom Mechanical Engineering.

(I know someone who used to do this on a small scale. For example, he built a machine that an MIT professor could use to measure the force needed to crush small objects.)
posted by alms at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2015

I've worked at a couple of labs that had some in-house machinists to do this. Our shop had some public-use tools for trained folks to do simple tasks, but for most things it was faster and more reliable to ask the pros to do it. They all started out as generally good machinists, but most of them have been in labs for a looooong time and have gotten particularly good at dealing calmly with scientists running in and saying "So I want [ludicrously complicated thing and also a unicorn], in 5 minutes, can you do it?"

If you're asking because you specifically want such a person and not just out of curiosity, all the ones I've known have been union (I think it's IAM), and your local can probably help you out.
posted by dorque at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2015

I've done this in the past, commissioned custom tools for very specific tasks. As the other have said above, I went to small companies, a couple of precision engineering firms. The engineer helps you with the design of the tool, then their machinists (or their contracted shop) makes it for you. We had to bring in a subcontracted glass-blower once to do part of piece of lab equipment at one point.

If you're looking on-line, custom machinist or precision engineering is the term to search for.
posted by bonehead at 8:42 AM on March 20, 2015

"Toolmaker" is a real career, and as noted, most machine shops have built special-use tools either as products, or to create products.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:17 AM on March 20, 2015

This might also be called "tool and die" work.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:30 AM on March 20, 2015

I do this at my engineering job (manufacturing engineer). Sometimes companies send us the drawings for the tool and sometimes they send is the widget for which the tool would be used, and I have to design the tool myself.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:31 AM on March 20, 2015

A good mechanic will also make tools for himself as needed. There's an episode of Wheeler Dealers (the one with the Audi TT) where Ed makes a one-off tool to extract part of the gearbox internals, and later makes an engine support to stop the engine falling out while he works on the subframe which normally holds it up. He also uses a special single-purpose tool at one poine that he bought (a weird angled wrench with a long handle) which is specifically designed to let you service one particular part on certain Audis.
posted by w0mbat at 10:41 AM on March 20, 2015

Another vote for tool and die maker.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:27 PM on March 20, 2015

Way back when I worked at the shipyard I was tasked with opening up a panel on each of a Navy Fast Frigate's stabilizer fins so somebody else could look inside for whatever reason. I got a ladder, hauled it down under the ship (it was in drydock), climbed up and had a look. The bolts holding the panel in place were like giant Allen bolts... as big as a clenched fist. Ridiculous. I went to the tool shed on the pier and ask the tool guy for an Allen wrench, "about yea big," I said and indicated with my fist. He just laughed and laughed and eventually he sent me to the machine shop and one of those guys came down and climbed the ladder and took some measurements and we went back to the shop and he got a hunk of metal and started cutting and turning and bending and in a couple of hours I had a custom wrench. He even fabbed up a breaker bar setup cause "those nuts are not gonna come out easy."

Probably the most educational day at the shipyard for me. Need something? It doesn't exist? Make it! That's powerful magic.

So, anyway. Machine shop is the answer.
posted by notyou at 3:47 PM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

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