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watch the Pinbone Wizard in action
This video shows how pinbones are easily removed from a salmon filet using the Pinbone Wizard. (QuickTime 8 MB)

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A salmon fillet with the pinbones removed.

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Tim Manning, assistant manager of the Geophysical Institute machine shop, demonstrates the Pinbone Wizard.

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Photo courtesy the Geophysical Institute
Arthur "Ned" Manning and Larry Kozycki try out an ice-cutting saw the machine shop made in the early 1990s so that volunteers at the World Ice Art Championships could remove blocks of ice from a pond.

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Photo courtesy Geophysical Institute
Machinists Ned and Tim Manning work on one of the computer-numerically controlled machining centers in the GI machine shop. The machines can cut pieces of metal or plastic to extremely fine tolerances.


Pinbone wizard

By Melissa Hart, Geophysical Institute
July 2007

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GI machine shop assistant manager Tim Manning demonstrates the Pinbone Wizard machine in the GI garage.

A fish fillet processor suitable for small-scale operations is about to hit the market. It's called the Pinbone Wizard and it sure picks a mean pinbone. From concept to creation, the pinbone-removing machine was built in the UAF Geophysical Institute's machine shop.

Much like set designers and builders in a theatrical production, the GI machine shop is responsible for behind-the-scenes fabrication and construction that turns ideas into devices that geophysicists and other scientists use on the main stage of cutting-edge research. According to assistant manager Tim Manning, the four-man team is well versed in doing just about everything from "hanging pictures to making rocket parts."

"If you can imagine it, we've done it."

"If you can imagine it, we've done it. There's very little we can't do mechanically," agrees Greg Shipman, the machine shop's manager. The shop covers all stages of production, including design, electronic drawings, programming the machines--even building the crate used for shipping the product.

"In a nutshell, we're blue-collar workers with white-collar design skills," said Shipman.

With a history dating back to the beginning of the Geophysical Institute in the late 1940s, the machine shop operates as one of the GI's service centers. The machine shop, the electronic shop, digital design center, the computer resource center and the proposal office all exist within the institute, yet are separate from it because each functions as its own cost-recovery center.

According to Shipman, while most of the shop's work stems from jobs inside the GI, it's not unusual for the staff to take on projects from the rest of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

"Our primary focus is to serve scientists and researchers at the GI and the university at large," he said.

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GI machine shop assistant manager Tim Manning demonstrates the Pinbone Wizard machine while shop manager Greg Shipman looks on.

Pinbone Machine
Developed more than 10 years ago by former machine shop manager Larry Kozycki, the original Pinbone Wizard idea was in response to a call from then-Gov. Tony Knowles to address the Alaska fishing industry's increased need to compete with farm-raised fish. Smaller processors needed to find a way to add more value to their fresh-caught product, said GI operations manager Bob Grove, who has been overseeing the machine shop for the past 16 years.

In its early stages, the Pinbone Wizard was designed to be an automated machine. But countless trials couldn't find a way to replace the need for individual attention that comes with the variety of wild salmon species Alaska fishermen catch.

The finished product is foot-pedal operated, and involves the user holding the fillet and running it over metal teeth that pull the pinbones as the fish passes over them, which preserves the integrity of the flesh. Compared to other fish-processing equipment, the Pinbone Wizard is portable (146 pounds) and is housed in an 18x20x14-inch cabinet. Tim Manning and his brother, Ned, who is now retired from the shop, spent countless hours creating the machine's intricate parts and gears. Shipman has been credited with redesigning the original construction so it uses more basic materials, making mass production easier and more affordable.

"Pinbones are the bottleneck, requiring a lot of manual labor to pluck out with pliers."

For a commercial fisherman, having a pinbone-extracting machine saves costly time and labor. "Pinbones are the bottleneck, requiring a lot of manual labor to pluck out with pliers," said Tim Manning. Working by hand, removing the stubborn pinbones from a salmon fillet normally takes about 25 seconds. At a trial run at Anchorage's Alaska Seafood and Sausage Co. this March, Manning clocked about 9-10 seconds with the Wizard. "With more practice, we could get it down to 7-8 seconds," he said. During his stay in Anchorage, they processed about 2,500 pounds of fillets.

"The first time they successfully remove the bones, there's a smile from ear to ear," said Manning. The processor can then sell fresh fillets, or vacuum seal them, without having to freeze the fish and send them off to be processed somewhere else. This summer, the Pinbone Wizard will be put to the ultimate test before officially going on the market. Manning will take the machine on the road for a week each in Dillingham, the Kenai Peninsula and Petersburg.

Broad skill set
Manning, who has been a machinist at the GI shop for 16 years, has developed a wide range of skills over the past two decades. Possessing a wealth of knowledge is part of the job description in the tight-knit shop, where the four employees work closely on projects, said Shipman.

Besides the Pinbone Wizard, the machine shop has worked on a diverse range of projects. The machinists collaborated with GI physicists John Craven and Mark Conde on making instrument components for HEX rockets launched at Poker Flat Research Range. They built a drill for ice coring in Greenland capable of drilling to bedrock. A recent project that actually came from outside UAF was building a 1,200-pound coil calibration system for the U.S. Geological Survey. The 6-foot-cubed instrument is used to calibrate and test fluxgate magnetometers at the Boulder Magnetic Observatory in Colorado. To complete the yearlong project, the machine shop relied on CAD design software, a computer numerically controlled machining center and the skills of the machine shop team, which includes Dale Pomraning and Jeff Nelson in addition to Shipman and Manning.

A feast-or-famine cycle can often create the need for quick turnaround...

A feast-or-famine cycle can often create the need for quick turnaround on jobs. While Shipman would love to see the shop expand, the unpredictable nature of research prevents having a steady cash flow. "Projecting into the future is incredibly difficult. We're entirely dependent on the scientific community (for funding)," he said.

And since the Alaska labor pool for highly trained machinists is pretty slim to begin with, if the shop wanted to expand, "Finding one of these guys is like (finding) a needle in a haystack," said Shipman.

Just the opposite of finding a pinbone in a fish fillet.

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All photos by Melissa Hart unless otherwise noted.