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From an early age, I have always enjoyed spending time with people who are older than me. While capitalizing on the energy and inventiveness of youth, I have also recognized that anything new is typically an iteration of something conceived many years previously, then modernized with up-to-date thinking, the latest materials, and sexy marketing.

A now-classic example of iterative change is computerization. Many people entering today’s workforce have grown up with only cell-phone technology and never heard, seen, or used a rotary-dial telephone. Similarly, virtually none of them have seen or used a slide rule or be familiar with XT or 286 PC computers featuring state-of-the art 40-MB hard drives (yes, that’s MB). But ask a maintainer or engineer close to retirement and he or she will remember such items clearly. And they’ll probably reminisce how that technology invoked change in the workplace in both good, and not-so-good ways.

Computerization is often considered a 1970s-and-’80s-era workplace revolution with the advent of Bill Gates’ PCs and Jobs/Wozniak’s Apples. In fact, computerization began much earlier, with large mainframe punch-card machines of the 1950s and ’60s. Those behemoths were derivatives of the 1946 Mauchly/Eckert ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator Computer) and, earlier, Alan Turing’s British-built computational machine that broke the German Enigma Code in the early stages of World War II.

Digging a bit deeper, though, we find that Turing’s research/design was based on Charles Babbage’s analytical difference engine and Ada Lovelace’s programming language used to calculate and print mathematical tables as early as the 1830s.  But 30 years before that, a Frenchman named Jacquard had invented a paper-punch card system to compute/auto control the weave pattern of a textile loom that also capitalized on Gottfried Leibniz’s binary code invented and published around 1700. One can even go 5,000 years earlier with the invention of the abacus, a device that uses beads to manually perform mathematical calculations in a manner similar to that of a computer. (Today, the abacus is still in wide use around the world.) In short, the computer is a perfect example of an iterative design.

As a young design engineer, I often sought out draftsmen, engineers, and managers who were nearing retirement, in the hopes of spending quality “think” time with them. I was privileged to “tap” into their vast experience and knowledge by questioning them on their approach to problems in the “good old days.” At the same time, I would be soliciting feedback on my own ideas and thoughts.  Unwittingly, I had stumbled upon a unique mentorship program in which my continued curiosity and openness to past practices allowed me to capitalize on a wealth of real-world knowledge and experience. This provided a solid structure and foundation for my own thoughts, processes, and designs.

I first started this process in the early 1970s and focused my interest from the industrial revolution to the early 1920s. During those exciting time, vast changes were brought about by the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford, Joseph Bijur, and other great thinkers and innovators.

Take, for example, Bijur, a giant in the field of practical lubrication. In 1923, he set the industrial world on edge by developing a self-contained engineered lubrication pump coupled to a centralized, single-line-resistance (SLR) delivery system. This system was initially intended for the automobile, which, at the time, had over 50 points that the operator had to lubricate on a per-trip, daily, or weekly basis. The SLR design reduced all this effort to a mere pull of a handle that sent oil to every point via a metering device set up at each lubrication point.

There’s no doubt that Bijur would have studied the single-point gravity-oiling devices in use at that time. They employed small reservoirs, variable aperture-bleed screws, spring-tensioned follower plates (for grease), and wicks or brushes first developed in the early 1800s for steam-engine bearings. He also likely studied Elijah McCoy’s steam-pressurized single-point oiling device that used engine steam to automatically force-feed lubricant to a point. McCoy’s device worked so well that railroads of the 1870’s and beyond shunned all competitors’ designs in favor of “the real McCoy”.

Bijur went on to strengthen the original design by using the automobile’s vacuum system to truly automate his lubrication system. This innovation led to the SLR system becoming part of every car in the ’30s and ’40s (and part of every Rolls Royce up until 1961). Simultaneously, the system would become the standard lubrication method for the machine-tool industry and quickly became the most copied automated lube system in the marketplace (it’s still effective and in use today). The system was so efficient in providing lubrication at the right point on an almost continual basis that mechanical failures were reduced to a third of what they were previously. This essentially tripled the life of lubricated bearing surfaces.

 Of course, while change is a constant, it doesn’t always produce positive results. Moreover, change is often imposed for the wrong reasons, the worst being political or personal. Consider the example of a new maintenance manager who recognizes that there are few, if any, machine-failure occurrences, thanks to an excellent PM program.  He or she then decides fewer maintainers are required and cuts costs by trimming the team, with disastrous results showing up after this manager is promoted and leaves. Maintenance staffers that remain never forget the days when things worked well and what led to problems. They’re often more than happy to reminisce given the chance, should someone care to listen.

The moral of this story is that veteran plant personnel, i.e., maintainers and operators alike, will have experienced excellence and mediocrity throughout their careers. Thus, they’re able to articulate what can work and what won’t, based on the current workplace environment, working conditions, and culture.

When your organization is looking to make changes or understand failures, such individuals can provide excellent advice and perspective based on actual workplace experience. Whether the site’s failure history is good or poor, they likely can recall all past major machine failures and the root causes. They also be a great sounding board regarding any proposed changes and help advocate for them if those changes are well thought out and meaningful.

To repeat, this segment of a plant’s workforce is an often-forgotten resource that can be tapped into for highly valuable knowledge and perspective. Having veteran staff in your corner will only increase your chance for success.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

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, asset management, skills development