December Work Processes

Viewpoint: A Contrarian View — Tradition Will Fail You

EP Editorial Staff | December 19, 2013

1213viewpointBy Heinz Bloch, Process Machinery Consulting

The recent Texas A&M University (TAMU) Turbomachinery and Pump Users Symposia (Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2013, Houston, TX) were again structured to convey a technology status overview to attendees from industry. But there’s more to these symposia: Sitting in on discussion-group sessions allowed us to observe the level of understanding—and the knowledge gaps—that exist in operations today. Close to 400 companies were exhibiting at the Symposia, and dozens of relevant technical sessions were arranged for the estimated 5000 attendee/participants. 

TAMU has, for a number of decades, spearheaded highly effective discussion groups at its events. In these sessions, experienced leaders facilitate interaction between individuals who have questions and others who are willing to offer experience-based answers. As expected, questions came from audience members who varied greatly in age and experience. Not surprisingly, those questions and their answers also differed in relevance and complexity. Some questions could be answered in less than one minute; others, such as “when do I use a reciprocating compressor and when would it be best to use a centrifugal machine” would have required reams of data and several days to answer. 

The response to 98% of all questions, however, can be found in the literature to which we have access. And that observation brings me to the point: There aren’t many readers among the audiences we typically see at industry gatherings like the referenced TAMU Symposia. People seek to invest 60 seconds to get answers to 24-hour problems. Many still want to spend no more than $100 to get rid of a $1,000,000 issue. More than ever, budgets for entire grass-roots projects are now based on cost estimates reflecting the cheapest machines, unserviceable configurations and unrealistically low anticipated maintenance costs. 


Sadly, some reliability engineers insist on looking at old specifications and making them tighter. These tradition-bound individuals often do so in a misguided, ill-advised effort to just do something—anythingto improve equipment reliability. That kind of thinking leads to guesswork or blindly following stale anecdotes a doughnut-provider conveyed years ago. (Consider the Symposia attendee who related his determination to use shaft packing where his competitors had switched to mechanical seals four decades ago.)

Again, the fallacy of simply tightening a specification came to the fore more than once in Houston. Yet, it can be shown that tighter specifications do not automatically translate into smarter, more reliable and extended-life machinery. Instead, well-researched specifications increase safety, equipment reliability and bottom-line profits. 

We desperately need to infuse realism into the rungs of both management and their non-reading staffers. There is an obvious unbalance—a lack of thinking—in plants and facilities that tolerate repeat failures and refuse to acknowledge the link between failure events and safety incidents.

Industry has not achieved a reasonable balance in allocating training time and inculcating resourcefulness without allowing safety step-outs. Industry leaders should start by holding themselves accountable before pushing blame down to their employees. There are many books that show details, not consultant-conceived generalities, on how improvement was achieved by Best-of-Class performers. Such performers learned from others and learned from prior art. That learning started with reading and not by sticking to every old tradition. MT

The opinions expressed in this Viewpoint section are those of the author,
and don’t necessarily reflect those of the staff and management of Maintenance Technology magazine.




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