ftp://lighthouseplcs.com/public_html/public_html/images/Robot-Arms-Head-Wall-Peek.jpgJan/Feb 2012 InTech(ISA Magazine) included a Web Exclusive article written by Carlos M. Delgado, P.E. All the way through reading, I was filled by a extremely wide range of emotions. “Emotions”? From a guy like me? If you know me (which you probably don’t), you would know that I am very passionate about anything pertaining to the Electrical or Instrumentation disciplines. If you care to read the article for yourself, by all means help yourself: http://bit.ly/10mGYDz .
First, in case you weren’t all that interested or didn’t have the time to read the full article, allow me to share my take on the subject.
Meet “Don the Weldor” (yes, I spelled that correctly – a welder is a machine). Don was a consummate professional. Using vernacular I learned later in life, Don could weld anything from “the crack of dawn to a broken heart”. This, was at a time when welding aluminum was like pure fargin’ magic. Don could weld aluminum better than most in his profession could weld structural steel.
As our (Electrical/Instrumentation) shop was right next to the Mechanics shop, we had the normal amount of interaction as one might expect. I remember clearly one day right after lunch as Don was preparing to get back to work, a young man – just starting out as a Mechanic’s Helper – approached Don. Don stopped to see what this young man wanted. I overheard the young man say “Hey Don, when you get a few minutes, would you show me how to weld?”
At first, it seems like a reasonable request, right? Don was the best, so why not go to the best to pick up some knowledge. So in a way, it was a compliment. Don’s reaction? First, veins started popping out on Don’s throat area. Next, the welding helmet dropped to the floor. Arms went straight (down) and even through the thick leather weldor’s gloves one could see his fists curling tight. Don’s eyes bulged out; I thought Don’s head was going to explode. Knowing Don, I knew what was about to happen (as similar incidents had happened to me).
At the top of Don’s lungs (loud, even for a small man), he began to verbally assault the young man and without ever touching or using foul language, beat the young man down nearing the point of tears. Here is the fuse; “Hey Don, when you get a few minutes, would you show me how to weld?” Don spent a lifetime perfecting his craft and honing his skills. This man in his mid-50′s learned how to weld in the army. He had been welding ever since – longer than the young man had been alive. Now this impudent youngster was demeaning this lifetime of accumulated knowledge to something easily learned during a coffee break.
We’ll get back to Don, but first back to the ISA Intech article.
TQM. Total Quality Management: based on the premise that the quality of products and processes is the responsibility of everyone involved with the creation or consumption of the products or services offered by an organization, requiring the involvement of management, workforce, suppliers, and customers, to meet or exceed customer expectations. (Thanks, Wikipedia). As an offspring (my words) “engineering objects,” also called easy-to-use knowledge containers, can help engineering companies face these challenges in a simple but interdisciplinary coordinated manner. I think it is important to realize that “Engineering Objects” springs from TQM. In my own (way dumbed down) words, I’ll use the example in the article, a pump. Let’s say that “Don_Clone_#1″ is a Process Engineer. He and his team come up with the parameters they feel necessary for this particular pump to do its part in the overall process. They pour all their knowledge about said pump into a – let’s use a plastic bucket like you get from Home Depot. So far we have things like Process Flow requirements, Pump Curves, HP requirements and such in the bucket.
“Don_Clone_#2″, the Mechanical Engineer comes along, looks in the bucket, and add her take on what pump meets the needed requirements and could contain information about nominal capacity, capacity curves, and coupling.. “Don_Clone_#3 is the Electrical Engineer. Like the other disciplines mentioned, his contribution to the bucket is similar to the others. Let’s call them “Objects“; this object will have layers of electrical information including: type of starter, power, voltage, phases, and electrical diagram.
Finally we get to “Don_Clone_#4″, The Automation Expert. The contribution in this automation object will have layers of information including : input and output (I/O) requirements, control descriptions, human machine interface (HMI) and programmable logic controller (PLC) tag databases, HMI dynamic symbols, computer aided design (CAD) symbols, and PLC code. Compatibility with other disciplines’ modifiers is also important. In this case, the object is compatible with electrical and mechanical modifiers. So there is our little orange bucket. Nice! Now what the hell do we do with it? More importantly, why did we spend ALL that time and effort (not to mention salary dollars)?
Here is what it comes down to. (AARP will love this.) “Engineering Objects” – are part of TQM as mentioned above. Engineering companies competing in the global economy face many challenges. One such challenge is the need for the industry’s highly specialized, aging workforce
to transfer knowledge to those replacing them as they enter retirement. [Personal Note: When I was 20 years old, that statement would not have affected me at all. 40 years later, I get a bitter taste in my mouth. I'll explain later.] Knowledge transfer practices help satisfy this need, although implementing such practices can be a challenging and complex process for companies. Using “engineering objects,” also called easy-to-use knowledge containers, can help engineering companies face these challenges in a simple but interdisciplinary coordinated manner.
I am not unsympathetic to the plight of the plant engineering team. The InTech article had some good points.
Common issues in performing engineering work
Not capitalizing on previous work – It is common to see engineers invest time developing systems from scratch instead of reusing parts of a past successful project. While this is more common among entry-level engineers, newly hired seasoned engineers could be making similar mistakes by using their previous job’s standards instead of using the current company’s standard. In both scenarios, chances are engineers have to redo work according to the current company standards.
Investing excessive time for applicable examples – Past projects were not intended to be libraries for future use. Therefore, in order to reuse past project sections, engineers must spend time investigating the context of these past systems to decide if these projects should be reused, modified, or avoided.
Learning from past mistakes – Learning from past mistakes is good, but it is optimal to learn from well defined, usable standards. Global competitiveness, higher expectations, and shorter deadlines force engineers to do more work and complete it faster, leaving little time to sharpen tools or create new ones.
Getting bored – It is common practice to assign repetitive or boring tasks to entry-level engineers or interns. These tasks have a high margin of error and can discourage young people from pursuing a career in engineering.
Losing the knowledge of our most talented people – David W. DeLong’s book Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce discusses this:”
[back to Personal Note from Above] It takes something like TQM and Engineering Objects to come along to “appreciate” the common man/woman who has this “vast repository of knowledge”. Yet still – In my experience – Company managers just don’t get it. How many times have you heard of an instance where someone with vast knowledge was replaced by two or three younger (little knowledge) people that work collectively for the same wage as the SME (Subject Matter Expert) who had 15 or 20 years with the company? The reason I got the bad taste in my mouth was because this whole thing was like a horrible science fiction movie to me. “Well, this biological unit will soon cease to function, so let’s extract knowledge containers from her brain that we can later share among the newcomers!” If the SME is so important, how about a little appreciation, a little compensation, and a little respect? Maybe you see it differently. Maybe you are in a situation where you get this kind of respect. If so, good for you. I bet you are 1 in 20 though.
I’ll close this with an excerpt from David W. DeLong’s book “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce”.
“You would have to have been living on the moon over the last few years not to know that baby boomers are fast approaching retirement age … lots of them have built up a tremendous amount of knowledge about how things work, how to get things done, and who to go to when problems arise. In some cases, this practical knowledge will be extremely hard to replace because it has been developed in an era of unprecedented technological and scientific advances …
“Leaders who fail to confront this threat will increasingly be held accountable for jeopardizing the future viability of their organizations. In the long term, you cannot compete effectively in the knowledge economy unless you are serious about knowledge retention.”