1660238357887 Dirk

Get Production People to Accept Your Ideas

Nov. 11, 2016
Explaining the engineering and science basis often is counter-productive

The production manager scolded me: “It’s not rocket science.” He ran a simple operation and expected a simple answer. I thought to myself, “It is if you want it to work,” but didn’t dare say that. So, I carefully explained the scope in simple terms using kitchen-level physics. He got it.

I’ve encountered such situations many times. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges facing engineers is explaining complex physics and chemistry to production people. Sometimes, though, the real question is: Does the company really need an engineer on-site at all?

Consider the assignment I recently completed at a small facility in Cincinnati. The site blends and reacts materials to create products for the home and industrial markets. It uses air-diaphragm pumps to send materials mainly through polyvinyl chloride piping; there are no controls except weigh scales and virtually no process instruments. The place really doesn’t require an engineer unless an expansion is planned. Moreover, it hardly needs maintenance. For this type of facility, the corporation should contract with a local engineering firm to provide the necessary support to the maintenance manager.

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However, problems can arise when plant personnel make minor changes on their own. The Cincinnati facility badly messed up its piping because staff didn’t understand water hammer, hydraulics, rheology, process control, material selection and other fundamentals. The plant would have benefited from a construction manual developed by corporate engineering.

Earlier in my career, a major brewer hired me to help out at one site. The maintenance manager there relied on the original plant construction specifications. He was a smart guy so he knew his limitations. When he had large projects, he could turn to corporate engineering.

So, why did the brewer hire me? Well, for several reasons — the best being because it planned to make several changes before selling the plant to a competitor but also because of a lack of honest engineering.

What is honest engineering? Well, let me tell you about Dr. Death. He was the corporate engineer. He specialized in selling projects to management at cut-rate prices. The guy I worked for in Cincinnati was like that, too. Then, some poor soul would have to do the work — and would fail; Dr. Death claims another victim. Honest engineering means providing a fair cost estimate including a little padding, which is almost always justified. A defensive strategy that can work if you’re his potential victim is a well-documented project file and a bunch of update presentations. You want management to know exactly how much things cost.

So much for the digression, let’s get back to how you should explain complex physics and chemistry to production people. Fortunately, modern technology helps a bit. When I had to spell out why installing a center-mount agitator without baffles was a bad idea, I made a video of the particular agitator to show it in action and downloaded a YouTube video of beads in motion in an agitated tank. The reaction: everyone understood baffles were necessary.

However, you can’t explain some concepts to production — don’t even try. Some years ago at an inorganic chemicals manufacturer, I tried to show how raising the temperature in a particular part of the brick lining of a chlorine fluidized bed would improve the lining and shorten construction time; my presentation, even with all its graphs, fell flat. The production people still didn’t get it. So, instead, I made my case with maintenance but that group wouldn’t accept my change without approval from corporate or production. My idea got nowhere.

I ran into a similar problem trying to explain how metal fatigue was the cause of spectacular failures in our oxygen coils. I learned something though: forget about selling production and maintenance on your ideas — go right to corporate engineering. If corporate agrees with you, production and maintenance must go along. The next time I ran into a challenge in replacing a Monel valve in oxygen pipeline service with one made of Type 316 stainless steel; it would avoid a long delivery delay as well as save a significant sum. I worked up a good case, bypassed the plant and went straight to corporate engineering. We developed a consensus among the maintenance engineers and the deed was done.

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from theASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at [email protected]
About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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