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The Incredible Story of Mr. Mechanobre

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© Из фильма НПК «Механобр-техника»

His name was known and treated with great reverence by the heads of the largest mining and processing and metallurgical plants in the country, rectors of the relevant universities, and representatives of the academic community. And how not to know - machines of his design work today in at least 40 countries of the world. However, most often the scientist was called not "Mr Weisberg", but "Mr Mekhanobr".

Every family has its own legends, which are passed on from generation to generation. At the Weisbergs such a favourite legend was the following.

"Once in the middle of the last century Leonid Abramovich, being a boy of about five or six years old, was dismantling some clock mechanism. And here he runs to his grandmother-doctor and shouts: "What to do? My friend Zhenka swallowed a spring." The grandmother replies that this is absolutely horrible, and in all likelihood the one will not survive. "What to do?" - Lenechka sobs. "Perhaps we should eat lots and lots of semolina porridge." "Grandmother, boil it at once!" - joyfully concluded the boy. Of course, this 'friend' was himself," recalled Natalia Valentinovna, the academician's wife.

Many years would pass and all his entourage would jokingly assure that that spring did not give Leonid Weisberg rest until the very last minute, forcing him to constantly search for new meanings, original ideas and forms of their implementation in all areas of interest to him. As the scientist himself liked to repeat, "as long as you do not calm down in your interest, as long as you are curious, as long as there is a wick that heats you from inside, you will live brightly".

Probably, without this life principle, the favourite brainchild of the talented engineer - "Mekhanobr-Technika" - would not have become the largest supplier of industrial and laboratory equipment in the entire post-Soviet space. Moreover, the research and production corporation was only one of his projects....

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Leonid Weisberg was born in 1944 in Pervouralsk, Sverdlovsk region, where his parents lived in evacuation. After the end of the Great Patriotic War, the family moved to Dnepropetrovsk. Like everyone whose childhood fell on the war and post-war time, the future academician grew up in queues for bread and paraffin, but despite the hardships and needs, he took from that time the most important thing - the ability to never give up and the desire to constantly learn something new. He learnt to play the piano, was interested in physics and, of course, read a lot.

As the scientist later admitted in an interview, Daniil Granin's novel "I'm Going to Thunderstorm", which fostered in him a love for science and an uncompromising approach to scientific knowledge, and Vladimir Popov's "Steel and Slag", which played a direct role in his choice of profession, became landmarks. Pictures of red-hot metal so captivated the young man that he dreamed about them all the time, telling his friends: "You see, red-hot steel flows, slag is removed from it...". After the seventh grade, being an excellent student, with a certificate of honours, he came home and said: "Mum, I'm leaving school and going to a technical college." She fainted and only after it was explained that it was the Mining and Metallurgical Technical College, she calmed down a little. Having chosen a speciality at the age of 14, Leonid Abramovich never changed it again.

In 1967, the young man graduated from the Dnepropetrovsk Mining Institute and in the same year went to Leningrad, where he got a place as an engineer at the Research Institute of Mechanical Processing of Minerals "Mekhanobr". What exactly attracted this institute to the newly minted engineer with high hopes?

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The company with the same name was originally established in 1916 by Professor Heinrich Chechott of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute to fulfil an order from the Russian military department for the production of artillery fuses based on highly enriched tungsten raw materials. In 1920 the further work of the research organisation, which was engaged in the problem of mineral processing, was warmly supported at the highest level and it was transformed into a state enterprise and its tasks were extended to the design and commissioning of important national economic facilities. By the 60s, the Research Institute had already developed some of the largest mining and processing plants in the world - in the Urals, Altai, Caucasus, Siberia and the Far East, in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and abroad. Among them are such mastodons as the Apatite Trust's Apatite-Nepheline Concentrator (ANOF-1), the Norilsk Plant and the Stoilensky Combine near the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly. It was the dream of almost every enrichment specialist to become part of such an institute.

The next year, after Leonid Abramovich was hired, the VIII International Congress on mineral processing took place in Leningrad, which was in fact a world recognition of Mekhanobr's merits in the field of mineral processing.

The young engineer immediately became actively involved in the work.

With his direct participation and on the basis of his technological approaches a number of large facilities were designed, constructed and put into operation, in particular, enrichment and sintering plants of Novokuznetsk Iron and Steel Works, Zapsibkombinat, Almalyk MMC, Navoi MMC, Norilsk MMC, Pechenganickel Combine, Yakutalmaz, Alrosa, Erdenet Combine (Mongolia) and a number of others. The enrichment plants of the former Soviet Union designed by NII processed over 70% of non-ferrous metal ores, about 65% of ferrous metal ores and produced 70% of sinter for blast furnaces.

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The USSR was among the top three in terms of technological level with regard to the exploitation of deposits and enrichment, which was largely due to the approach to the place of science in the production process. For example, Weisberg, working in a scientific institute, spent eight months a year at the enterprises. He determined priority tasks, implemented innovations, and if necessary, he changed into a robe and, together with the workers, climbed under the next rumble and reassembled it, oiled the necessary nodes.... In addition, he regularly went on business trips abroad and could evaluate foreign experience.

"In terms of technical level, we were not lagging behind in any way: neither in terms of energy intensity, nor in labour productivity. We did not have a single piece of imported equipment back then. Not a single one! And even before the early 90s, we sold our equipment to almost all CMEA and third world countries: Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan," Leonid Abramovich said.

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But then came one of the most difficult periods in the country's history, when science began to rapidly perish against the background of the collapse of the economy. The Institute Mekhanobr was corporatised, and on its basis the Mekhanobr Group was established, which created two companies - Scientific and Production Corporation Mekhanobr-Technika (JSC) and Mekhanobr Engineering JSC. Mekhanobr-tekhnika comprises Mekhanobr Design Bureau, experimental design department, Mekhanobr-L pilot plant, scientific department (development of enrichment equipment), as well as a group of scientific departments and laboratories dealing with disintegration, classification, screening, magnetic and electrical separation processes. Leonid Weisberg became the founder and permanent head of the Scientific and Production Complex, who had to invent in real time the scheme of "survival" of the organisation in the conditions of market economy.

Then he admitted that for a certain period of time science was on the back burner. A huge economy fell on the scientist's shoulders. It was necessary to find money even to pay "Lenenergo" for heating the building. But the main thing - to pay salaries and to keep the team.

"Mekhanobr" continued to create and ship its equipment to the enterprises of the country, but those in turn were ready to pay only in kind. The stories about those times have accumulated a huge number - one could write a novel.

"One enterprise on the Volga River sent two Buran snowmobiles in payment, another sent a carload of glass. The most memorable episode was when a large northern factory sent two wagons of herring. There was simply nothing else... In the end, the fish in barrels managed to be exchanged for bed linen, as it is a product with a long shelf life, and then by some miracle sold out in shops. What science could we think of then?! To live!" - recalled Weisberg himself.

It was necessary to build new links between organisations and enterprises. In order to find sales markets, we had to travel a lot, including abroad - to Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the USA. And Leonid Abramovich succeeded. He orientated that the market needs not ephemeral ideas and developments, but real goods in the form of technology, which the customer is ready to buy, install and tomorrow start making profit.

As a result, Weisberg not only preserved the production of machines for enrichment, but also greatly increased the competitiveness of the company in terms of creating equipment and supplies to the Russian and world market, as well as designing modern mining and processing plants, sintering plants, hydraulic structures. Under the scientist's leadership, a complete technological corridor was built from the inception of a scientific idea for the manufacturing industry to its implementation in production and after-sales service. As an example, a joint machine-building plant in Beijing today supplies equipment developed by Mekhanobr-Technik to the countries of the Asia-Pacific basin.

The scientist has become Russia's leading specialist in the field of mineral and technogenic raw materials beneficiation, mining and processing engineering, theory, calculation, design, practice of use and operation of vibrating machines and devices used in mining, construction, processing of industrial and municipal waste.

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The results of his research in the field of theory and calculation of vibrating mining and processing equipment became the scientific basis for the creation of advanced domestic technologies and machines in basic industries.

The phrase "A Russian engineer should think symphonically" belonged to Leonid Weisberg. He himself was just such a scientist - he thought on a large scale, unconventionally, with all the variety of ideas and projects he systematically achieved results in each of his fields of activity.

He was the author of 266 scientific publications, three times laureate of the RF Government Prize in the field of science and technology, Honoured Builder of the Russian Federation, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor of St. Petersburg Mining University, Head of the Engineering Section of the Russian Science Foundation, member of the Supreme Mining Council of Russia, awarded with the highest professional gold sign "Miner of Russia"... It is possible to enumerate for a long time. He was known in the city, in the country, in the world.

One day, Leonid Abramovich was interviewed by Daniil Granin, the author of the novel "I'm Going to Thunderstorm". The writer asked whether the scientist considers reading useful for a technician. Weisberg responded with a phrase from the novel "Besy": "If you fall into rudeness, you will not invent a nail". He could not imagine how a person who has no outlook and does not understand all the joys and colours of life could be deeply engaged in science and engineering.

The broadest polymath, who was well versed in science, history, literature, theatre, architecture, music and art. He was his own among both technicians and people of art. Leonid Weisberg passed away on 29 December 2020.

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