The Case of the Missing Key

By Suzanne Kubler

When CJ Nesbitt inherited his grandfather’s World War II footlocker, he got a heavy dose of mystery and intrigue. The chest was locked and hadn’t been opened in almost 40 years; its contents were unknown. As for the key? It was nowhere to be found.

“I remember seeing the chest in my grandfather’s attic when I was a kid. PopPop had a giant attic with all kinds of cool stuff in it,” said CJ of his grandfather, who was a civil engineer and U.S. Marine who served in World War II and the Korean War. “I used to explore, looking for treasures whenever I visited, and I always wondered what was inside the trunk.”

CJ, a mission engineering test and evaluation manager in Rancho Bernardo, California, set out to solve the case of PopPop’s locked trunk using one of his favorite Northrop Grumman employee perks: the FabLab.

Compelled to Create

CJ often uses the FabLab to scratch his creative itch, he said. FabLabs are non-production workspaces open to all Northrop Grumman employees for making and creating. They’re located at more than a dozen sites across the United States, and most include computers, electronics, machining and rapid prototyping equipment, 3D printers and a place to collaborate. As a maker space, FabLabs provide the opportunity to bring both personal and professional projects to life.

“I like to invent, so I’m constantly building prototypes of my ideas and all the tools in the FabLab make it possible for me to refine my designs,” said CJ, who has used the FabLab to create everything from security systems to a professional-grade escape room.

His work in the FabLab has made a tremendous impact. During the pandemic, he produced 5,000 face shields for healthcare professionals. More recently, CJ fabricated a device to focus Global Hawk cameras accurately without having to fly the aircraft. Since this process usually must be done inflight, it has the potential to save the program millions of dollars.

“We needed a material that was lightweight and easily machinable that wouldn’t pose a risk of scratching the lenses. The FabLab happened to have several sheets of a fiberglass resin that worked perfectly,” said CJ of the Global Hawk innovation.

The Treasure Inside

To solve the missing key mystery, CJ took a photo of the trunk to a locksmith shop. The owner noticed the lock’s brand along with the code 34T. The locksmith had a book showing the key for that lock series.

“I scanned the photo from the locksmith’s book into 3D modeling software. Then I took the measurements of the lock and scaled the photo until the size of the key matched the size of the lock,” said CJ.

He then used the FabLab’s 3D printer to make a copy of the key. Presto! His FabLab creation worked like magic.

“The printed key functioned perfectly on the first try and it allowed me to open an invaluable piece of my family’s history,” said CJ.

Inside the footlocker was a historic 48-star U.S. flag, a leather bag full of brightly colored marbles, some metal TV dinner trays, a bag of loose change and a key ring. For CJ, these mementos unlocked precious memories from his childhood, particularly the marbles.

“I remember playing marbles with my grandfather as a kid,” said CJ. “We also enjoyed wood-working projects together — I got my inventiveness from him.”

CJ said he would like to pass along his love of creating and inventing to his two young daughters. He volunteers monthly at their schools, teaching about STEM, in hopes they and their classmates will enjoy it as much as he does. Now, thanks to his grandfather and the FabLab, CJ has a new story of mystery, intrigue and problem-solving to help capture the students’ attention.

Life at Northrop Grumman

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