Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Zen and the Art of Laser Maintenance

Patrick Williams
A change in philosophy and measurable reliability are among the improvements that Patrick Williams has delivered as NIF optics maintenance manager. Credit: Jason Laurea.

It’s only Monday morning, and already there are too many red alerts in Patrick Wiliams’ life. As NIF optics maintenance manager, he’s acutely tuned to potential problems on the world’s most energetic laser system, both on-site in the optics processing facilities and off-site at the optical fabrication vendors.

Williams pays so much attention to detail in his job that he has placed each piece of the NIF precision optics system on a color-coded matrix—all 1,450 pieces of the $12-million-a-year system. So when any critical piece of the system goes red, the ex-Texan shifts into troubleshooter mode, only without the drama.

“Cool heads are the ones that save the day for you,” says Wiliams. “Anyone can run and shout, ‘The sky is falling.’ Someone has to have the ability to think through, ‘OK, how do you get it back to high ground?’”

When he took over as operations manager five years ago as a veteran of the semiconductor industry, Williams realized that while NIF was performing pioneering research and development, the facility has more in common with production facilities like those he managed for Intel and Texas Instruments.

He offers the hypothetical example of a car: Do you want your car to work 50 percent of the time, or 100 percent of the time? “Your car has to run, you have to get to where you want to go,” he says. “So does NIF. It has to run. It’s not an R&D facility, it’s a production facility.”

To reach his goal of getting NIF optics maintenance at 90 percent operational, he worked to establish measurable metrics and a production mindset with his crew and managers. He found it to be a big change in philosophical approach, forging a sort of “Zen and the art of laser maintenance.”

His boss Chris Stolz, associate program manager in charge of NIF optics supply, credits Williams with bringing a data-driven approach to the program that has helped keep crises to a minimum and enable stronger operational reliability.

“Before, we had huge problems with equipment failures and equipment being offline,” Stolz says. “We didn’t have appropriate spares, or an understanding of what was leading to those failures. Patrick has addressed all those areas and more.”

Among the challenges Williams and his team face is logistics: While most NIF optics maintenance takes place on site, repairing optic lenses damaged by the intense energy of the 192 lasers, repolishing surfaces, and some of the facility’s highly specialized precision equipment including crystals are handled by outside companies as far away as Cleveland, New York, and Pennsylvania. The parts spend so much time flying back and forth, especially to Cleveland where NIF’s crystals are manufactured, that he’s working on hiring a Lab staffer to be stationed there full-time.

Members of Williams’ team are Bruce Baumgartner, Carl Conti, Tracy Leever, Jacob McCormack, John Peterson, Patrick Perez, Jerry Ruble, and Rafael Villanueva, each of them cross-trained to achieve stronger operational stability. As team supervisor Ruble describes their role, “We’re the lens in the NIF flashlight.”

Patrick Williams with Members of his TeamPatrick Williams with members of his NIF Optics Maintenance Team next to one their many areas of responsibility—the water skid system that provides ultra-pure, high resistivity water for the Optics Processing Facility. Front row, left to right: Bruce Baumgartner, Tracy Leever, and Carl Conti; Back row: Patrick Perez, John Peterson, Rafael Villanueva, and Jerry Ruble. Not pictured: Jacob McCormack. Credit: Mark Meamber

Williams, the son of a Baptist preacher, set off for a career in Silicon Valley high tech after growing up in a farming family in Texas. He counts himself lucky to have the experience of working overseas in Asia, and he’s been around the world four times by his count.

While he’s devoted much of his life to outside volunteerism, most recently he has focused his efforts on religious work—as a youth minister, then as a minister, and now as senior pastor of New Life Fellowship in Tracy. He has extended his ministry to youth programs and homeless outreach, helping people transition from homelessness.

“I talk to people, I embrace them, and I listen to them,” he says. “I don’t want to be a fly-by blessing.”

Williams’ ministry includes some serious fun as well, with his Christian racing team. He races a Chevrolet truck called Little Red, with his wife Dionne Williams as his crew chief and their children and godchildren working as the pit crew. His wife is with him in the church and also works at the Laboratory as an administrative assistant in the Weapons and Complex Integration Directorate.

Patrick Williams Prepares for a RaceWilliams prepares to race his custom Chevy truck, Little Red, at Sacramento Speedway.

At the start of a race, Dionne buckles him in and checks all the systems. “Then I give her a kiss,” he says, “and hers is the last face I see.”

June 2017