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While driving my car several weeks ago, I felt a slight vibration in the steering wheel. I initially thought it might be due to snow buildup in one of the front wheels, but a visual check revealed clean wheels. During my next drive, though, the vibration became constant, only it was accompanied by a slight  auditory cyclic “rubbing” noise. As the sound was continual, I ruled out the constant-velocity joints.

At my next stop, I touched the center wheel hub of the RH wheel and found it to be considerably warmer than the LH hub. That indicated a wheel-bearing issue. A quick trip to the shop confirmed my diagnosis, and the wheel-bearing was replaced.

While waiting for the repair, I spent some time thinking back to my youth. Growing up with a Dad who founded and ran a successful engineering and heavy-metal-fabrication company for decades provided me a practical apprenticeship like no other. Holding two trades licenses, as a mechanic and a plater/welder, he was teaching me how to competently measure, cut, weld, machine, fabricate, clean, and paint metal, and to pull apart machines to clean and maintain them, well into my teenage years.

By far, the most interesting learning experiences during those formative years happened when Dad let me in on what he called his “trade secrets.” One of the most profound reveals was his explanation of how a machine continually communicates to us, if we’re willing to listen using not just our ears, but all of our primary senses. The perfect example of this comes from John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, The Grapes Of Wrath, and the following, wonderful passages on how Al Joad used his primary senses to understand the operating state of his car:

“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 in 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 may cause a breakdown.”

ve always treasured that simple reveal and have continued to capitalize on it over the course of my entire career.

Through the years, Dad shared many more of his “trade secrets” with me, most of which were based on the seventh sense: common sense. “That,” he assured me, “is not always commonly used.”

If you care to share any of your own “trade secrets” with other readers of The RAM Review, please email me ( I would be delighted to pass them on using your name or, if you prefer, anonymously.TRR 


Ken Bannister has 40+ years of experience in the RAM industry. For the past 30, he’s been a Managing Partner and Principal Asset Management Consultant with Engtech industries Inc., where he has specialized in helping clients implement best-practice asset-management programs worldwide. A founding member and past director of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada, he is the author of several books, including three on lubrication, one on predictive maintenance, and one on energy reduction strategies, and is currently writing one on planning and scheduling. Contact him directly at 519-469-9173 or

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