I cannot think of any engineer I know who did not breathe a sigh of relief when the last college exam was over, and it was time to move from academics to real-time practice. Then came the big surprise: The needs of the new job required specific knowledge and experience that even four or five years of intensive education had not provided.
Then came the bigger surprise: Ten or maybe even 40 years later, in spite of vast experience and years of on-the-job training, advances in technology had managed to widen the gap between existing skills and needed knowledge.
So what do you do? With a demanding job, two or three kids and a mortgage, going back to school is not an option for most of us. And even if it were an option, the local university is not necessarily the best place to learn the latest tools for finite element analysis of a piping system, or how to perform realistic vibration evaluation for an aeroderivative gas turbine engine.
Added to this dilemma is the plight of the crafts people, who typically do not have the foundation of a four-year degree, but do have a great deal of horse sense and years of practical experience. Unfortunately, most craft experience is with yesterday's technology, and technology methods turn over every three to five years or so. Consider the software you run daily on your computer. Has it been run without significant upgrades during the last five years? How much of it is even recognizable as the same software across this five-year span?
Solutions for both the engineer and the crafts person are available through job-specific or technology-specific short courses provided by various training companies and engineering societies. The table shows typical ongoing education requirements, in the author's opinion, for rotating machinery ," in particular, pumps, fans, compressors and turbines.
Of course, attendance at courses such as these requires time and money. In the United States and Canada, it is customary for short courses to be taken during regular working time and to be paid for by company funding. The perceived long-term economic benefit to the company is very strong. To minimize the cost to a large company committed to continuing education, it usually is best to provide the course on-site, so travel time and costs are minimized, although some extra fees will be required by the course offeror.
Even when a plant is committed to continuing education, difficulties might be encountered in obtaining plant management approval unless the course can be shown to be relevant and fill a gap in necessary knowledge. If the course shows attention to fiduciary responsibility, approval is much easier.
For example, attendance by key plant personnel at a course on vibration interpretation or proper selection and maintenance of mechanical seals could positively affect disciplinary actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if an accident happens.
How much is enough?
Even if a successful case is made for the course's relevance, plant management still might be reluctant to move beyond introductory courses, and management might cut off funding for further coursework in a given area even if the information already conveyed does not provide sufficient depth for personnel to competently perform a detailed and required function.
Consider a vibration example. Vibration analysis using a meter can tell you the overall vibration level at a measured location, which can be compared to an acceptance chart. But a vibration analysis that looks at the level vs. frequency across a spectrum, evaluates the narrowband vs. broadband parts of the spectrum, evaluates the operational spectrum vs. the spectrum resulting from a "bump" test, and takes into account the machine's internal clearances and design details is much more valuable. This information then can be evaluated by an in-house expert or a competent consultant to make an excellent estimate of whether the machine is in trouble and, if so, when it needs to be shut down and what should be readied to fix it.
Sometimes the small-letter kind of vibration analysis is enough, but if you have a large compressor failure that takes off someone's arm or allows massive emissions on the outskirts of your town ," if you are in responsible authority and small-letter vibration analysis is all you were willing to pay for ," I hope you look good in stripes. Furthermore, if I am a stockholder in your company, I am not going to be very enthusiastic about the $50,000 you saved in vibration monitoring system hardware, the $25,000 you saved in consulting costs or the $15,000 you saved in detailed training when the machine most critical to your process just went into an unplanned outage at the cost of $350,000 a day in lost production.
In short, when you are responsible for rotating machinery, you are dealing with very critical issues on many levels: safety, the environment, profitability, etc. Unfortunately, large rotating machines with a high power density are the ones most critical in these areas, but also are the ones that are most difficult to understand and predict the behavior of.
Can continuing education avoid all mishaps and catastrophes with this equipment? No. But it can be a key factor in avoiding the great majority of them.
Weighing course options
Even the best engineers and crafts people cannot be experts at everything. Furthermore, plants have been forced to cut back drastically on their operations and maintenance (O&M) staffing during the last 15 years. This is the result of, among other factors, competitive "re-engineering" at steel mills, refineries and manufacturing plants, and de-regulation in the power industry.
I recently finished the "Bearings and Lubrication" chapter for the third edition of the Modern Marine Engineer's Handbook, and this was a key factor I needed to keep in mind during the writing process because military facilities have cut their O&M staffs as well. In surveys, we found that issues deemed "common knowledge" in the past were totally unknown by today's nonspecialists.