Category Archives: Engineering

How To Get Them While They Are Young?

A blog that almost nobody reads may be the smallest way possible to throw my hat over the fence, but I hope it has the needed effect for me.

A few weeks ago, right around National Engineering Week, I had a brief back-and-forth about the idea of giving some sort of lecture/presentation/demonstration to the 8th grade kids my sister teaches (math) in order to try to convince some of them to at least think about engineering, and more specifically, manufacturing as a viable career. Especially now that I am getting to the point where I think my job is more about teaching/mentoring/training than it is about doing.

Since I’ll see my sister for Easter, I want to talk to her about what her year’s curriculum is, to see if there is something I can tie into. And really, making stuff is cool – manufacturing shouldn’t be THAT hard of a sell (especially to kids who haven’t had their eyes open to the terror that is trying to find steady employment).

So my question out to the vast wasteland is – how DO you get kids excited about manufacturing and engineering? Anyone?


Professional Reputation In The Balance – Understanding The Expected Level Of Communication

Today at work within the span of one hour, there were demonstrations of the damage to your professional reputation that can be caused by both over-communicating and under-communicating with your peers and managers.

The under-communication example:  The assistant plant manager needed to round up a half-dozen employees, and had them called as a group over the plant’s PA system. All but one showed up. The asst. manager then called the missing person by name over the two-way radios we are all to carry in the plant. When he still failed to respond, I was called to search the facility for him. Once he was found, and the initial matter was taken care of, it was brought to his attention that his lack of awareness of the situation could have had serious consequences had the issue been an emergency. (It didn’t help that this wasn’t the first such incident, just the first time that it was someone that high up the ladder that was looking for him.

The over-communication example: The same assistant plant manager expressed his displeasure over a recent incident when the off-shift supervisor called him at 3 am to let him know that the plant was down due to a town-wide power outage. At our plant, late-night calls are not an infrequent occurrence, but the manager couldn’t figure out the purpose of this intrusive call. There was no question of what to do, there were no options, there was just a need for temporary down-time until the power company fixed the problem. This was purely an informative call, which could have waited a few hours until the morning.

The lesson here is to understand your audience, understand the relationship you have with them, and give them the level of communication they need to do their job, and that they request from you – no more, no less. The VP of quality assurance doesn’t care about the reactor size of your new process, she wants to know what considerations for product integrity were made. Your sales force is going to glaze over if you explain each step you needed to go through to expedite an order, they just want to know that you arranged for the product to be received on date X. And your direct manager will let you know the level of detail they want to hear about your work based on how much he trusts your ability to do it correctly.  Being able to read the room and the clues that your audience will send you about their interest makes the difference between being perceived as a professional and being seen as hopeless.

How To Make Project Meetings More Efficient and Productive In One Simple Step

Short post today. One simple step to take to keep project meetings short, effective, and productive:

Have one person in attendance whose main function is to interrupt conversations as they derail with a quick “Shut The Fuck Up.” It needs to be someone who has some respect among those in attendance, but probably not the most senior person at the meeting, as he will be the most frequent target of the comment.

Whenever a project update meeting drifts into group design – “Shut The Fuck Up”

An impromptu recounting of the history of the building the project is going to be located erupts – “Shut The Fuck Up”

The 2 hour conversation you had last meeting about a trivial point starts revving up again – “Shut The Fuck Up”

Discussion on a topic continues (or more accurately, replays) after a decision has been made – “Shut The Fuck Up”

Someone dithers for the tenth time over a decision they were supposed to give a definitive answer to months ago – “Answer Now, Quit, Or Kill Yourself” (This task is not as simple as just repeating four words, or else a Furby could do it – if Furbys still exist)

Why yes, I did just come back from a three and a half hour project update meeting, why do you ask?

PS – The person you assign this task to must also a)be protected by enough of upper management AND the people who actually do work so as not to be fired immediately; and 2)be independently wealthy so that they don’t starve when a) is not enough.

How To Prepare For When Moving Day Turns Into Groundhog Day

The good scenario: Your product has become so successful that you need to build a new, additional production facility to both increase your production and allow for better coverage of another market area.

The more common scenario: You want to move your current production facility to a place that can run with lower overhead, utility, and manning costs.

Either way, this should be a piece of cake. You’ve already refined your process, determined which equipment works, and have built up a knowledge base at your current facility. All you have to do is use the current plant as a model for the new plant, and you’re done.

Then you hit the on button at the new plant, and find that you can’t make any product. Or it isn’t in spec. Or you start seeing way too many people complaining of complications and body stresses and strains you’ve never seen before. If you’re lucky, it seems like you’re repeating the same mistakes and headaches that you moved past long ago at the old plant. If not, you’ve seemed to have moved backwards. And to top it off, you don’t even have Bill Murray around to make it funny. What happened?

To put it short, you treated the project to build a new facility as if it were as simple as running a copying machine. But even copying machines get jammed. The mistakes I’ve seen:

1 – Garbage In, Garbage Out: Moving to a new location likely means changing raw materials to a local source. It might be “just as good”, but it will be different. Impurities matter, not only the level, but their makeup. I’ve seen projects spend millions trying to react to the fact that they were originally designed for a different feedstock, only to end up as a complete write-off a few years later.

2 – You Can’t Copy What You Don’t Have – Your documentation isn’t as good as you think it is. Yes, you have all the original files and specifications for each piece of equipment you bought when you built the first plant decades ago. But you didn’t update the files as frequently as you updated the equipment. As you expanded the business, you had to work around the pinch points in the design, and slowly rebuilt the plant. Off-shift maintenance got sick of always repairing the drive that constantly failed, so they upgraded it on their own. Your operating procedures soon developed shadows that resided only in the heads of those who used them.

3 – I Used The One Labeled “Abby Normal” – Since brain transplants have been perfected yet, you have to rely on Knowledge Management to get the years of experience built up in the heads of all the employees at the original plant into the heads of the new plant. Take the frustration of training one new employee in a plant of veterans, multiply it by the number of employees, then multiply it by, I don’t know, say 1 million, to see how hard it will be to get an entire new crew up to speed. If it’s an expansion, you might get a few people at the old site transfer over and act like a starter dough does when making sourdough bread. If your shutting the old plant down – be ready to have some bad information passed along by your employees on their way out the door to the unemployment line.

4 – We can build it faster, stronger. We have the technology – Why copy something when you can improve it? Because nobody ever thinks that their “improvement” has a cost or trade off. Soon, you can find yourself in a shootout between the “experts” who are tied to the methods of the old plant and take offense to the thought that the new guys just waltz in and tell them they’ve been doing things wrong all their lives, and the new guys who can’t credit the team that is being replaced with having any common sense – after all, if they knew what they were doing, why is this project going on at all?

5 – You Can Lead A Horse To Water… – Lastly, and it always is considered last in these projects, is getting your customers to accept the new facility. Nobody wants to deal with change, especially if there is no real upside to them. You’ve moved production to save costs, but your customers won’t see that money, they’ll just see the hassle of having to audit and approve the new site. And deal with the supply headaches your startup hiccups give them. And if you don’t think your announcement through completely, you’ll find out too late that you sold your old facility down the river in an effort to generate customer buy-in (“We are building a new state-of-the-art facility to ensure quality production that we haven’t been able to in the past”) and burnt any bridge back to return production to the way it was when the startup goes even worse than I’m expecting.

I’m not saying you have to stay where you are today – you probably can’t. But you have to treat a copy-cat project as seriously as a new design development.

World Class Project Management – A Guide To Making Bad Project Teams Worse

For the past several months, I’ve been a technical expert advisor to a project team for a new installation. If I thought management programs and fads were a waste of time before, my experience with “World Class Project Management” (WCPM) has made me rethink my position on management consultants as members of the human race.

In addition to the typical split of a large capital project into front-end, design, construction, and startup phases, with milestones and gateways along the process, WCPM includes “Value Improving Practices” (VIPs), in order to formalize the development of ideas to reduce project costs (supposedly based on life-cycle costs). These VIPs include Process Simplification, Energy Optimization, Design-To-Capacity, and Value Engineering among others. Each of these concepts are good, in fact necessary for good project design and implementation.  Developing rigid processes to implement each is asinine at best.

Today, I sat through an 8 hr meeting to cover Value Engineering. The meeting consisted of getting all the principals involved in the project design in the same room, with a outside facilitator trained in “Value Engineering”. The group then went through the Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams for the entire project one by one, to come up with ideas of how savings could be found in each area of the system. Then, when an idea came up, the group would start to discuss it’s merits, until the facilitator would interrupt and say this meeting was to come up with ideas only, which we would rank in priority at the end of the meeting to develop action items around.

Problem the first: Any time someone is more focused on the process and organizational rules of a meeting than in the actual project the meeting is about, that person needs to die.

Problem the second: This project team is similar to almost every work team ever – they don’t really need to be encouraged to sit around and spout out ideas without ever coming to a final decision on any of them. They’ll do that with their last dying breath if you let them.

At some point, a smart project leader has to realize that any financial and operational gains made by coming up with more and more alternatives is more than offset by the losses of delaying making a decision and running with it. Make a wrong decision, and two things will happen – the owner of the installed system will work around the problems, or a modification will be made. But progress will be made. 90% perfect and completed is better than 95% perfect and delayed and over budget due to delays and a sped up construction and startup period because the corporate mandated end date is a mandate.

Shut up and get to work already.

How Long Can You Stay “Lean And Mean”?

From today’s NYT:

But whether growth in manufacturing indeed spells new jobs throughout the economy remains a question. Mr. Shapiro, the MFR economist, argues that companies have become permanently lean, mastering the art of producing more with fewer people — a trend with staying power.

When I started reading the paper this morning, I thought I was going to write about everyone’s seeming case of collective amnesia, where everyone forgets that manufacturing and industry almost always picks up every January as they have to make up for the depleted inventory they ran down for tax purposes in Q4, when the paragraph above jolted me to a stop. Because the short sighted thinking articulated in it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

I currently work at a small production facility. And I love a lot about that fact – instead of being stuck in a corporate engineering role for GloboChem, working for a smaller organization means that I get to/have to get involved in every aspect of the business. I need to know who the sales people are talking to, and be ready to provide them with technical support. I have to understand the operating procedures, the inventory system, and the accounting system for when things go wrong, and that knowledge gives me a better insight into what projects would really have a positive impact on the company as a whole, rather than focusing only on my narrow assigned focus, and end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.

But in the current economic reality, a lot of companies cut past fat and into bone. At this point, if somebody leaves the company, or is even out for an extended absence, either their duties get ignored completely until a replacement is hired, or those duties get parceled out to those who are left, which pushes something off their radar. (Yes, there are still some people at every location who could take on extra duties, usually a LOT of extra duties, but we all know that he won’t, and that for whatever reason/incriminating pictures he has, the company won’t get rid of him either, so let’s do what we do at the office, and pretend he doesn’t exist)

This can work for a while, in fact this can work for a very long while – as long as the company is willing to just tread water and remain where they are today. But the first tasks that go are those that will build your company’s future – the developments, the new products, the step-changes in productivity and applicability to your customers. If your crew is running on all cylinders just to get the product out the door, you might be able to brag to your shareholders about your productivity, but there’s a new guy in your rear-view mirror about to overtake you. And he’s leaner, and isn’t carrying the weight that comes with existing customer demands.

Sleep tight.

Specification War

One issue I have seen come up from every side of the transaction is errors in product specifications. Depending on a customer’s method for bidding out business and the supplier’s plan for handling specs, almost every process will go through one of three problems:

Main Causes – Over-eager sales reps, bureaucratic red-tape, nervous buyers

I’ve seen customers request dozens of analyses on their product that have no benefit to their use just because more is better (usually done by the industry leaders), not thinking about a cost-benefit analyis of these tests, or that it may effect availability. The worst case of this I can think of was when a government contractor wanted to by what was in all truth a commodity chemical for a new use. They first requested a typical sample, and then took every detail of the sample analysis and turned it into the product specification. Not only did it cause problems for my company as a producer, trying to provide material whose specification was tighter than the process variability, but it also hurt the customer, as it was impossible for them to ever look for alternative suppliers.

The key thing to remember as a supplier is, however, that at the end of the day, the customer chooses the specification. You might think that it is too tight a spec, that the customer has no need for it, that some large customer is just throwing their weight around, but your opinion is irrelevant. I’m not saying that the customer is always right (In fact, the customer is usually the least knowledgeable person in any transaction, and is likely to be wrong), but rather that the customer is more empowered to walk away from the deal.

Main causes – laziness

Beyond the main problem of ordering material or services with no guarantee of quality, there are also two problems for SUPPLIERS of underspecified products: 1)High rate of rejection by customer (either in the form of returns or loss of business); 2)Inability to differentiate your product from your competitors, even if it is demonstrably inferior (Hello, China)

Here is where the knock-down battles between companies really come. Customer incorrectly specifies their needs, they receive product that meets all the specifications, but does not satisfy their actual needs, and then everyone starts yelling at each other. Hopefully, someone figures out what the true specification should be, and adjustments can be made. Worst case is the customer gives up on the supplier, determines in his mind that the analysis of the product by the supplier was a fabrication, finds another supplier, and badmouths the company to all and any.

This is where a good process engineer can come to save the day. Unfortunately, most of these inter-business interactions only occur between the sales and purchasing departments, which are frequently the least technically knowledgeable people in the process. It is vital for a good process engineer to gain the trust of their sales department, so that they can provide assistance to both sides of the transaction. You need to prove to your sales force that you can be trusted to talk to customers, and then need to be able to quickly gain the trust of the customer to determine what their real needs are.

So I guess that’s the long way of saying – Know what you need, know what your wants are worth, know your customers’ needs, and you need to know your sales force.