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1:10 am
September 2, 2006
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Training Future Machinery Engineers

Do you want to be one of the real “decision makers” in your organization? If you do, you’ll want to heed the advice of this industry icon.

The status of maintenance and reliability engineers has been the subject of debate for decades.Nevertheless, it might be worth noting a few highly specific experience-based remedies that have allowed some equipment engineers to climb out of the rut in which others apparently find themselves. Specifics seem scarce, and well-defined experience-based solutions are not usually offered. That may simply be a sign of the times–our times, today.

It was different in the 50s and 60s. Back then, a mechanical engineer’s career was largely influenced by supervisors and managers who had moved through the same, or very similar knowledge-based career steps. Guidance and direction given in those days was far more focused than what is being offered today by generalists and managerial types. The world-view of today’s boss has very often been shaped by motives and forces substantially different from those prevailing a few decades ago. Today also, far fewer engineers are being enabled and empowered to act as decision makers.

There are choices available to you
While time and unforeseen occurrences befall anyone, it is equally true that our lives are largely influenced by the choices we make.A young engineer can choose to obtain virtually all of his or her post-college training in the form of on-the-job learning. Although there is nothing wrong with that type of learning, engineers can choose to buttress and supplement it with mature reading habits. Such reading habits can certainly accelerate the acquisition of thoroughly marketable skills in more structured ways than traditional on-the-job learning.

For beginners (and others!) to learn from older maintenance and reliability staffers is commendable and appropriate. But,we must guard against accepting and absorbing as “fact” everything somebody else tells us–it certainly will not always be of true benefit. Conversely, neither will the act of discarding everything that others have done before us. In essence, either extreme must be avoided and science must always trump gullibility and sales pitches.

Testing and understanding “the mechanics of things” and even thoroughly examining underlying thought processes are always sensible choices. This implies that a balanced view must be sought, and finding and consistently practicing this balance requires work. It also requires an investment in time; this certainly implies reading and thinking not just on one’s employer’s time, but also on one’s own time.

While it is never too late to cultivate a balanced view, it is obviously best to do so early in one’s life. The extremes of the available choices are to be shunned.Guessing or accepting on blind faith what others tell us “on the job” is not acceptable. On the other end of the spectrum, we should not “study things to death” since there are many maintenancerelated endeavors that simply do not merit investigation beyond a certain point. True professionals have balance. They learn to identify root causes of problems and map out remedial action that avoid problem occurrence.

Shared learning and a measure of specialization are important
When a person learns or adds experience in a field that is logically related to his or her job function, both employee and employer stand to benefit far beyond their original expectations. The employee gains a sense of self-worth that will allow him or her to confidently look ahead to an otherwise hazy employment future. By nurturing the desire to learn in an employee, an employer may well gain a value-adding contributor whose ability to make “go-no-go” decisions on the basis of more fully understanding risks and consequences can be worth a fortune. A smart employer, therefore, makes training a shared responsibility. Such an employer will faithfully do his part–likewise, the employee will consistently and conscientiously do his or her part.

Bright people have an intuitive understanding of the merits of having not just a job, but wish to gain an increasing measure of marketable knowledge. They put themselves in charge of their own future and assign great value to the systematic acquisition of a definable specialty. They also strive to know, ultimately, how they compare against real-world competition.

So, let’s just assume you are a young mechanical engineer with the goal of specialization in rotating machinery for oil refineries and petrochemical plants, or in reliability improvement of fluid machinery (pumps, turbines, compressors). Note that this arbitrarily chosen specialization goal is not as narrow as, say, “small metering pumps.”An overly narrow area might not serve you in the long term if, for instance, small metering pumps were suddenly being replaced by “electronic stroking pistons”–or whatever. On the other hand, an overly broad area of specialization (such as “machinery and equipment”) might be presumed to include bookbinding, and packaging, and shoe manufacturing, and ten thousand other types of machines. Claiming coverage of such an area conveys the perception of shallowness.

Steps in the training and learning process
Just to re-emphasize: accepting that the most important learning process begins at graduation is the first and perhaps most important step in an engineer’s training.

While training plans will undoubtedly differ for different areas of specialization, it might come as a surprise to learn that the principles embodied in the specifics listed here for “reliability improvement of fluid machinery” apply to every aspect of engineering specialization.

1. Reading trade journals. . .
In the interest of continually obtaining workspecific technology updates and related training, the developing engineer must peruse trade journals. He or she should scan and–either by eye or electronic scanner–retain articles on topics of potential interest. Use your imagination to interpret scanning as viewing and making copies of, or reading, tearing out pages, filing away and cataloging articles.

Companies with well-defined training plans arrange for applicable Trade Journal 1 to be given to employee “A,” who notices an article dealing with shaft couplings and sends copies to colleagues/co-workers “B,””C,””D,” etc. Applicable Trade Journal 2 starts on the desk of employee “B,” who notices articles on pivoted shoe bearings and wear-resistant V-belts. “B” makes copies of one or two other articles and sends them to “A,” “C,””D,” etc.; likewise “C” sends articles to “A,””B,””D,””E,” and so on.

This once-per-month review task typically takes less than 10 minutes, yet it allows each participant to acquire a valuable data bank of relevant cross-references. (Such a data bank can truly be one of those gifts that keeps on giving. For example, I personally had an experience decades ago when I looked for a reference article, then called its author directly, asking for–and cheerfully receiving–priceless guidance on a subject matter related to the article.)

2. Reading technical books: a page a day or 200 pages per year. . .
Few engineers purchase or thoroughly read technical texts after completing their formal education. Fortunately, however, there are some training-oriented employers who encourage their staff to read and absorb relevant technical texts. For example, back in 2003, one such employer encouraged his responsible professional employees to purchase as many books as they could reasonably assimilate or digest in a year’s time. Now, during performance appraisals, the effectiveness of this policy is being continually ascertained and reaffirmed.

Another company purchased pertinent technical texts and requires each technical employee to read a page per day. To the extent feasible and reasonable, these professionals are then asked to jot down what they discern as differences between their work processes, hardware details, failure frequencies, maintenance intervals, work processes, etc., versus what others (competitors) are doing in these fields of endeavor. The training value is immense. Certainly, the return on the investment of time it takes to read a page-a-day and to make a twosentence notation each week is huge. There also can be no doubt that this well-focused training will benefit all parties for years to come.

3. Training via “shirt-sleeve seminars”. . .
In the 1970s, one highly profitable company arranged for its equipment reliability technicians and engineers to share the responsibility of making 7- to 10-minute presentations at the end of each routinely scheduled and mandatory safety meeting. The presenters would educate themselves on such topics as “how to properly install a centrifugal pump”or “why steam turbines must be pre-heated before operation.”Following a pre-sentation, they would distribute written copies of two-page guidelines on the topic laminated in plastic. Plant management let it be known that it expected these guidelines to be used and adhered to by both the mechanical work force and operating personnel.

In this manner, these “shirt sleeve seminar” presenters taught themselves and passed on their findings to the entire plant. At this location, equipment failures due to human error and other causes were minimized and everyone profited from this approach. There should be no reason for not adopting it elsewhere with equal success.

4. Role statements & future training plans. . .
During a job interview, a graduating engineer would be wise to explore his or her projected role. Soon after starting work, the engineer should be strongly interested in receiving a written role statement from his or her superior. If no such statement is forthcoming, the engineer may put his or her understanding on paper and ask the responsible manager for review, input or concurrence. Unless there is agreement on the engineer’s role,”performance exceeding expectation” is as elusive as the same person simultaneously dancing at two separate weddings 50 miles apart.

By the same token, during a job interview, an engineer about to graduate should ask about the training opportunities available through or endorsed by a prospective employer’s facility. The interviewee must have a goal in mind and this goal must involve professional growth and learning.

Learning is obviously a two-component process.While one party offers it and the other absorbs it, the ultimate benefits are shared by both. That being the case, each has a commitment to make–and serious forethought and mutual cooperation are needed to achieve optimized professional training.

As an example, a company could identify a self-motivated employee and ask this person if he or she would be willing to be the custodian of an electronically stored and searchable engineering library dealing with turbomachinery, pumps, gears, shaft couplings, etc. He or she would then be asked to identify useful Conference Proceedings, published articles and related information on the chosen topic. The material needs to be indexed and, in one form or another, made accessible to one’s peers and other individuals who would be helped by the reference material.

During subsequent performance appraisals, the employee and the reviewer/appraiser would make an objective assessment of accomplishments by way of comparison with the previously agreed-upon role statement. Such an assessment would comprise all pertinent training issues and include measuring the employee’s performance with regard to reading and disseminating technical material.

Favorable results anticipated
By accepting help and being willing to help others succeed, engineers will prosper. Moreover, they will gain a sense of self-worth if they truly pursue training. Engineers that succeed in acquiring a marketable skill both during formal studies and after graduating from engineering school can face the future with considerable confidence. Self-motivated engineers or technicians who implement and stick to the approaches briefly described here are very likely to become the type of employees who offer solutions to problems. Instead of becoming folks expressing “concern” over potential problems, they will delineate the discrete steps needed to avoid problems.

Worth pondering
There are, then, a few things for future maintenance and reliability professionals to ponder:

  • All that’s labeled “education” is NOT beneficial. Some education can be so academic as to lack substance–it would not pass as a marketable skill. It’s the same with training. Take charge and make it relevant
  • Don’t just wait for skill-enhancing training opportunities to present themselves. Instead, take a hand in creating some of these opportunities. Virtually all marketable skills are acquired through training–and marketable skills get us through life better than a mere education.
  • On your way to work every day, resolve to add value. Think ahead and dwell on the specifics of adding value on that day. Later, on your way home from work, ask yourself how successful you’ve been in adding value to the enterprise.

Finally, remember this
In your job you may occasionally encounter leaders that either cannot–or will not–lead.When this happens, don’t give up. Only dead fish swim always with the stream. MT


Frequent contributor Heinz Bloch is well-known to MAINTENANCE TECHNOLOGY readers. The author of 17 comprehensive textbooks and over 340 other publications on machinery reliability and lubrication, he can be contacted as follows: hpbloch@mchsi.com, or via his Web site: www.machineryreliability.com


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