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Speeding up, not slowing down.

Ceramics engineer Randy Ragan, an inventor and entrepreneur of long standing, is formulating his next project with computer-aided design on his Power Macintosh.

Nothing unusual about that, you say? Well, then, just consider that Ragan is at an age when most men are puttering around their workshops or their gardens, working on their putting, or just looking for their pipes and slippers. He recently turned 84 and has been using CAD for only about a decade.

Using this CAD system, Vellum from Ashlar Inc. in San Jose, Calif., Ragan has made more drawings in the last few years than he had during the rest of his long - and interesting - life.

"The main thing CAD does for me is facilitate drawings by several orders of magnitude," said Ragan. "I would never be able to do drawings these days by longhand. In a half-hour, CAD lets me do a job that would have taken two or three days at the drafting table. And it's much more accurate this way. I use a layering facility and can have up to 250 layers. I can call up any layer and leave the others in the background, so it's highly unlikely that I'll make a mistake."

Ragan, who still works seven days a week ("but my office is in my house"), has seemingly made few missteps in a career that has taken some unusual turns.

He grew up in Vanceburg, Ky., a town of about 1,000 people just over the border from Ohio, attended Ohio State University, then served in the U.S. Navy for six years as a gunnery officer. "I spent four years studying to be an Army field artillery officer. The same spring I was supposed to go in the Army, I switched to the Navy's V-7 program and eventually became a gunnery officer on a destroyer before World War II. During the war, I served on a battleship."

Following the war, Ragan wound up on the West Coast, where he went to work for Gladding McBean, a general ceramics operation, in 1945. He left in 1954 to start up his own company, Microelectron, which was sold in 1963 to Electra Manufacturing, and eventually wound up in the hands of appliance giant North American Philips, from which Ragan retired in 1980.

Unable to stay retired for long, he returned to the business world as a consultant, eventually starting the first of his two companies, RTI (Ragan Technologies Inc.), in 1992. At RTI, with the help of seven associates, he continues to develop patented processes, such as High Shear Compaction and Zero Shrink Technology.

High Shear Compaction lets manufacturers convert powdered materials to sheet form using highly modified rolling mill technology and machines (which Ragan designs using Vellum). The process is uniquely flexible in that variations of it are suitable for a wide range of products, such as ultrahard materials like tungsten carbide and diamonds, as well as something as pliable as seaweed, with controllable results.

Zero Shrink Technology allows a ceramic material to be machined in the green state and fired with virtually no change in x or y dimensions after firing. Previously, ceramics shrinkage could be up to 20 percent, making it difficult to predict the size of the finished product. With this process, it is possible to fabricate large ceramic articles and substrate tapes that do not warp or distort upon firing.

About a year ago, Ragan, with his son, Pete, a mechanical engineer, began Ragan Labs, a firm that consults in technical ceramics. "We do mostly high-tech stuff," he said, "primarily aerospace and medical applications that involve high-tech ceramics and ceramic processes." He does the work out of his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., just north of San Diego.

Ragan's earlier life wasn't always so well-defined. During the Depression, he worked a year in the Civilian Conservation Corps, as a plane surveyor. He has also been a tobacco farmer, a stone cutter, and a cabinetmaker. In the rare moments when he is not working on a new project, Ragan enjoys gardening, fishing, and reading, with a particular affinity for Tom Clancy novels.

Ragan holds 15 patents in all, but the one he is proudest of was developed while he was working at Gladding McBean. "That one was for a floor in the operating room of a hospital," he recalled. "The process allowed static charges from anaesthesia to bleed off, so that charges didn't spark anaesthetic gases and cause an explosion during surgical procedures. I think that one may have saved a few lives."

Ragan, who has made "several hundred" inventions by his own rough estimate, came up with his first one when he was 11. "It was a contraption for hanging wallpaper that dispensed the paste automatically," he said.

His efforts over time have not gone unnoticed. Last year, he received the John A. Wagnon Jr. Technical Achievement Award from the International Society for Hybrid Microelectronics, citing him as a "pioneer in the microelectronics and electronics packaging industry," and for "starting the era of electronic-ceramic devices that paved the way for modern microelectronics technology." In 1991, he was given the Samuel Geijsbeek Award by the American Ceramic Society in recognition of his contributions to the art of ceramics.

In spite of this formal sort of recognition, however, Ragan is hardly sitting on his hands these days. Thanks to CAD, at an age when most people are slowing down, Randy Ragan is speeding up.
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Title Annotation:ceramics engineer Randy Ragan
Comment:Ceramics engineer Randy Ragan remains active in the field of engineering at the age of 84.
Author:Easton, Peter
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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