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People: Peter Franco, Machines and Music

(Photo - Peter Franco)
Peter Franco holds a Snoopy cutout made on the electric discharge machine. The Snoopies were produced several years ago as part of a SLAC Kid's Day activity. (Photo by Nicholas Bock.)

It would be hard to find Peter Franco if you didn't know where to look. His office is tucked away in a corner of the Light Fabrication Building, his desk hidden behind a row of giant industrial machining tools. The walls are lined with steel cabinets full of parts, posters from heavy metal shows and keepsakes from his two kids.

"Welcome to the cave," he says with a grin.

Franco is a machinist with SLAC's Mechanical Fabrication Department. He spends his time working pieces of metal for use in devices and instruments all over the lab. He doesn't always know what the parts he makes will be used for, and design specifications can be as crude as scribbles on a napkin.

Franco got into the field through NASA, taking his first machining job at Moffett Field in Mountain View. From there he went on to stints at several other sites around the South Bay, arriving at SLAC nearly seven years ago.

He mostly uses tools called electric discharge machines—devices that use large electrical currents to cut and shape metal. One of the machines, called a wire EDM, uses a charged wire 1/100 of an inch in diameter to make intricate cuts through pieces of metal up to 14 inches thick. The wire runs between two independently moving heads, the metal being worked sitting in between. As the machine moves the block of metal around, the wire cuts through the material, not unlike a wire cheese slicer moving through a block of cheddar.

Using the machine's onboard computer system, Franco can make an endless variety of shapes and objects—blocks of metal with helical holes running through them, leaves and sheets for custom springs and, for a SLAC Kid's Day event some years back, cut-out Snoopies.

"You can really do some interesting kinds of work," Franco said. "One of the things about this wire machine is that it has the capability to do some things that would be impossible to do with any other machine."

Franco also uses another machine called a sinker EDM that works on a similar principle. But instead of using a charged wire, the sinker EDM uses stamp-like electrodes to press shapes and patterns into metal.

Aside from being a machinist, though, Franco is also a musician. Over the last 35 years he has played in no small handful of groups, and has toured extensively throughout the West. He primarily plays bass. His musical prowess ranges from country to metal. For Franco, music and machining go hand in hand, machining providing a kind of flexibility that enables his musical aspirations.

"They have machine shops everywhere, all over the world," Franco said. "So if you want to move to Australia, you can move to Australia and be a machinist. I used to tour around as a musician, and so machining was something that gave me the freedom to do both careers."

Franco still works as a musician, although he stopped touring some time ago. He lives in Pacifica, and now focuses on teaching others how to play. He gives bass lessons and works with others in the community to help develop the local music scene. And apparently, the whole music thing runs in the family. His 9-year-old son recently picked up a guitar and is now playing in a band of his own.

"They gig around and everything," Franco said.

—Nicholas Bock
SLAC Today, September 30, 2009