By Ken Bannister, Contributing Editor
“Al, bent over the wheel, kept shifting eyes from the road to the instrument panel, watching the ammeter needle, which jerked suspiciously, watching the oil gauge and the heat indicator. And his mind was cataloguing weak points about the car. He listened to the whine, which might be the rear end, dry; and he listened to tappets lifting and falling. He kept his hand on the gear lever, feeling the turning gears through it.
Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gearshift lever; listen with your feet on the floorboards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses; for a change of tone, what a variation of rhythm might mean. That rattle—that’s tappets. Don’t hurt a bit. Tappets can rattle till Jesus comes again without no harm. But that thudding as the car moves along—can’t hear that—just kind of feel it. Maybe oil isn’t gettin’ someplace. Maybe a bearing’s startin’ to go…
Al was one with his engine, every nerve listening for weaknesses, for the thumps or squeals, hums and chattering that indicate a change that may cause a breakdown.”
. . .The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939
Primary-sense ‘first alert’ maintenance checks
Peering into the looking glass of past maintenance practices, we are presented with often-forgotten useful methods and practices that can be resurrected and used in an innovative manner to augment and elevate our modern-day practices. That’s the focus of this month’s column.
As noted, the italicized passages above are taken from Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, The Grapes of Wrath. They touch on the interactive relationship between Al Joad, a precocious 16-year-old who was trying to get his family from Oklahoma to California during the height of the Great Depression, and his vehicle: an old Hudson pickup truck.
Like most real-life operators and maintainers of his day, Steinbeck’s Al was a great student of all things mechanical, who trusted his senses to detect early onset of failure. He had learned to listen and differentiate between normal and non-normal equipment states, a practice that’s been stifled over time in favor of a smorgasbord of modern technologies—should we choose to employ them. If, as Al did, you listen to a machine in your charge, you’ll hear it “talk” to you in many ways. You can detect its happiness—or pain—by way of your six primary senses.
- Visual: Does it look different? We should consciously observe and note lube levels, leaks, line breaks, gauge readings, contaminative dirt and non-normal visual indications.
- Auditory: Does it sound different? Consciously listen for non-normal bearing noises, knocks, line vibrations.
- Kinesthetic: Does it feel different to the touch? Touch your machines to check for non-normal heat or vibration.
- Gustatory: Does it taste different? Taste the air: If glycol is leaking, it will taste sweet like donuts;. if oil mist is set incorrectly, there will be a metallic taste.
- Olfactory: Does it smell different? We can smell burnt oil on friction plates, leaking oil, overheated bearings and burnt electrical wiring.
- Intuition: Does your instinct tell you something has changed? Often referred to as the “sixth sense,” intuition uses “gut feel” to determine when a situation does or does not instinctively feel right (frequently based on experience). Practiced sensory-input gatherers use intuition to focus all their sensory inputs and make effective decisions faster.
Performing the those six primary-sense questions prior to completing a PM job task can stimulate early-failure detection.
If a maintainer is unable to perform regular maintenance visits to a piece of equipment, the next-best scenario is to interview the operator prior to performing any physical check or technological diagnosis of the equipment. Any non-normal answers to the questions allow the trade to quickly focus his/her troubleshooting efforts and rapidly diagnose problems well in advance of failure.
Lubrication color codes and symbols
I recently came across a technical article entitled “Color Codes,” published by the Scientific Lubrication Journal in January 1950. Its author is listed as a Mr. J. Harrision, who, at the time, was working as an engineer in the Department of Technical Information for the C.C. Wakefield Company in the UK (some readers may recognize this company as Castrol Oil).
In his article, Harrison put forth a control-system methodology to ensure that “factory lubrication” could be carried out in a consistent manner, with scientific precision, by unskilled workers, using symbols to denote frequency of application, and colors to signify the lubricant type. He recommended using 1” geometric symbols painted on lubricant reservoirs, or at lubrication points, in which a circle designated the need for daily attention. A triangle would designate weekly attention. A square would designate monthly attention. For activities to be conducted on a quarterly basis (or over longer periods), the square was to again be used, but with a number painted inside it to highlight the number of interval months.
To determine the correct lubricant to apply, each symbol was to be painted one of three primary colors: yellow, red or blue to correspond with an already-determined lubricant legend. If more than three lubricants were to be used, the same colors were used again, but with the addition of a bold black diagonal stripe across the symbol.
Harrison didn’t stop there. He further advocated the use of the colors on reservoirs and dedicated transfer equipment to diminish the chance of lubricant cross contamination.
Today, as many readers are aware, there’s an array of color-coded tags and transfer equipment in the marketplace that can be employed by maintenance departments. These types of innovative solutions are relatively inexpensive to purchase and implement—and are very effective.
For companies unable to stretch maintenance budgets in lean times for what they consider to be “non-essential” items, the Harrison article offers this suggestion: With just three or four cans of spray paint, some stencils and a little thought, a company could introduce a visual-management approach, thus setting in place the beginning of an overall lubrication-management program.
Seek out and leverage effective resources
Old journals, magazines (such as Popular Mechanics) and books are a treasure trove for any maintenance professional wishing to stimulate his/her innovative juices. They can be found in libraries, at flea markets or in the basement or garage of a retired or soon-to-retire colleague (who wants to find a new home for them).
In searching for innovative approaches to maintenance, I learned—a long time ago—to invest time with the “old-timers.” For the price of a cup of coffee and a listening ear, many of them are more than happy to discuss their experiences, along with the methods, practices, tips and techniques they employed “back in the day.”
Looking to the past is often just the spark we need to get started in the direction of future innovations. Good luck!MT
Ken Bannister is author of Lubrication for Industry and the Lubrication section of the 28th edition Machinery’s Handbook. He’s also a Contributing Editor for Lubrication Management & Technology.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.