A Blueprint for Training Machinery Engineers, by Heinz Bloch

So as not to sound too negative, it might be worth noting a few highly specific experience-based remedies that have allowed some engineers to climb out of the rut in which others continue to find themselves. The specifics are important, because the engineering profession finds itself inundated by buzz-words and clever acronyms. Many of the catchwords are nothing but consultant-conceived generalities. Some are best seen as "flavors of the month," or feel-good quick fixes. Specifics on training are scarce, and well-defined experience-based solutions are not usually offered.

Lack of recognition has origins

In the 1950s and when some of us graduated from Engineering College in the early 1960s, a mechanical engineer's career was largely influenced by supervisors and managers who had moved through the same, or very similar, knowledge-based career steps. Guidance and direction given in those days was far more focused than that offered five decades later by generalists and managerial types. The world-view of the early 21st Century's boss has very often been shaped by motives and forces substantially different from those that prevailed in 1960 or 1970. The ultimate effects of this "new thinking" are decisions that often endanger the health and safety of personnel, and certainly have put at risk the profitability and survivability of entire corporations.

Today, with far fewer engineers enabled and empowered as decision makers, the visibility of the profession is diminished. The prestige of the engineering profession has notably shrunk over the years. This reduced prestige is partly caused by engineers allowing a cheapening of products and the profession often tolerating repeat failures. Add the fact that engineers rarely speak with one voice and have, on more than one occasion, accepted sales pitches and claims that run counter to the laws of physics. As a result, even their very credibility is sometimes questioned.

Making matters worse, many engineers are either not interested in thoroughly documenting their work or are unable to express themselves with fluency and accuracy. For those engineers, language insufficiencies tend to close the door to professional recognition. Then also, and quite unlike medical doctors whom one would consistently address as "doctor", engineers are content being called by their first names. That fact alone might illustrate why engineers are not held in the same esteem as the medical profession. Moreover, many engineering graduates consider studying for a Professional Engineer's exam a waste of time---for whatever reasons. I believe having the drive and motivation to study for and pass such an exam would be perceived as a positive trait by others and will often help improve one's own sense of self-worth.

In contacts with the legal profession, as expert witnesses or otherwise, engineers very often concede the entire field to the attorneys. Many engineers meekly endure attacks on their person or credibility and allow lawyers to browbeat them into submission. This, too, does nothing positive for the esteem in which others hold the reliability engineers' profession. Allowing such attacks, or conceding the field to those who shout the loudest, is also not enhancing an engineer's sense of self-worth. But, fortunately, it does not have to be that way.

There are choices available to us

While time and unforeseen occurrences befall anyone, it is equally true that our lives are largely influenced by the choices we make. An engineer can choose to get virtually all of his or her post-college training in the form of on-the-job learning. Of course, there's nothing wrong with traditional on-the-job learning; however, engineers can choose to buttress and supplement this learning with mature reading habits. Mature reading habits can certainly accelerate the acquisition of thoroughly marketable skills in more structured ways than traditional on-the-job learning.

Accepting and absorbing as "fact" what somebody else tells us may not always be of true benefit, and neither will the act of discarding everything that others have done before us. For instance, some engineers offer guesses instead of solutions, or accept on blind faith what others tell them "on the job." Some, not having trained their thinking abilities, confine their contributions to voicing concerns over potential problems. Although having a degree in engineering, these practitioners of a shallow version of engineering put themselves at risk of being viewed by management as a dispensable job function, a "pair of hands," a person deserving little respect, one that can be easily replaced or readily terminated.

On the other extreme of the spectrum, some engineers see doom in every decision made by man. They will "study things to death," not realizing that there are many endeavors that do not merit study beyond a certain point. Obviously, either of the two extremes must be avoided, and science must always trump gullibility and sales pitches. Testing and understanding "the mechanics of things" and even thoroughly examining underlying design principles are always sensible choices. This implies that a balanced view must be sought, and finding and consistently practicing this balance will always require work. It also requires an investment in time; it certainly implies reading and thinking not just on one's employer's time, but also on one's own time.

True professionals have balance. They learn to identify root causes of problems and map out remedial actions that avoid problem recurrence. While it is certainly never too late to choose cultivating the balanced view, it is obviously best to do so early in one's life.

Why shared learning and a measure of specialization are important

When a person learns or adds experience in a field that is logically related to his or her job function, both employee and employer stand to benefit far beyond their original expectations. The employee gains a sense of self-worth that will allow him or her to confidently look ahead to an otherwise hazy employment future. By nurturing in an employee the desire to learn and to rank above average, an employer may well gain a value-adding contributor. The employee adds value by acquiring and cultivating the ability to make go-no-go, or do-don't-do decisions. These decisions will be based on more fully understanding risks and consequences and these decisions can be worth a fortune. A smart employer, therefore, makes training a shared responsibility. Such an employer will faithfully do his part; likewise, the employee will consistently and conscientiously do his or her part.

Bright people have an intuitive understanding of the merits of having not just a job, but wish to gain an increasing measure of marketable knowledge. They put themselves in charge of their own future and assign great value to the systematic acquisition of a definable specialty. They also strive to know, ultimately, how they compare against real-world competition.

So, let's just assume you are a mechanical engineer with the goal of specialization in rotating machinery for oil refineries and petrochemical plants, or reliability improvement of fluid machinery (pumps, turbines, compressors). Note that this arbitrarily chosen specialization goal is not as narrow as, say, "small metering pumps." An overly narrow area might not serve you in the long term if, for instance, small metering pumps were suddenly being replaced by "electronic stroking pistons"---or whatever. Likewise, an overly broad area of specialization (such as "machinery and equipment") might be presumed to include bookbinding, and packaging, and shoe manufacturing, and ten thousand other types of machines. Claiming coverage of such an area conveys the perception of shallowness.

Specific steps in the training and learning process

Just to re-emphasize: Accepting that the most important learning process begins at graduation is the first and perhaps most important step in an engineer's training. While training plans will, of course, differ for different areas of specialization, it might surprise that the principles embodied in the specifics we chose to list here for "reliability improvement of fluid machinery" apply to every aspect of engineering specialization.

Reading Trade Journals

In the interest of continually obtaining work-specific technology updates and related training, the developing engineer must peruse trade journals. He or she should scan and retain articles on topics of potential interest. We might use our imagination to interpret scanning as viewing information on paper or by way of an electronic scanner. One would then make copies of, or read, or tear out pages from relevant trade journals. The material would be organized, filed and catalogued for rapid retrieval.

Companies with well-defined training plans arrange for applicable Trade Journal 1 to be given to employee "A" who notices an article dealing with shaft couplings and sends copies to colleagues/co-workers "B", "C", "D", etc. Applicable Trade Journal 2 starts on the desk of employee "B" who notices articles of pivoted shoe bearings and wear-resistant V-belts. "B" makes copies of one or two other articles and sends them to "A", "C", "D", etc.; likewise "C" sends articles to "A","B", "D"," E", and so on.

This once-per-month review task typically takes less than 10 minutes and allows each participant to acquire a data bank of relevant cross-references. I have personally had an experience decades ago when I looked for a reference article and then called its author, asking for---and cheerfully receiving---priceless guidance on a subject matter related to his article.

Technical Books: A Page a Day, or 200 Pages Per Year

Few engineers purchase, or thoroughly read, technical texts after completing their formal education. Fortunately, however, there are some training-oriented employers who encourage their staff to read and absorb relevant technical texts. In 2003, one such employer explained that his responsible professional employees are encouraged to purchase as many books as they will reasonably assimilate or digest in a year's time. During performance appraisals, the effectiveness of this policy is validated and reaffirmed. Another company purchases pertinent technical texts and requires each technical employee to read a page per day. To the extent feasible and reasonable, these professionals are then asked to jot down what they discern as differences between their work processes, hardware details, failure frequencies, maintenance intervals, work processes, etc., versus what others (competitors) are doing in these fields of endeavor. The training value of this approach is immense. Certainly, the return on the investment of time it takes to read a page-a-day and to make a two-sentence notation each week is huge. There can be no doubt that this well-focused training is priceless and benefits all parties for years to come.

Training Through "Shirt-Sleeve Seminars"

In the 1970's, one highly profitable multi-national company arranged for its equipment reliability technicians and engineers to share the responsibility of making 7 to 10-minute presentations at the conclusion of each routinely scheduled and mandatory safety meeting. The presenters would educate themselves on such topics as "how to properly install a centrifugal pump", or "why steam turbines must be pre-heated before operation." Following the presentation, they would distribute written copies of these two-page guidelines laminated in plastic. Plant management made sure that reasonable expectations were met. Management made it clear they wanted these guidelines to be used and adhered to. Reliability engineers, mechanical work force and operating personnel were told that compliance was mandatory, not optional.

In this manner, the "shirt sleeve seminar" presenters taught themselves and passed on their findings to the entire plant. At this location, equipment failures due to human error and other causes were minimized and everyone profited from this approach. There should be no reason for not adopting it elsewhere with equal success.

Role Statements and Future Training Plans

Already during a job interview a graduating engineer would be wise to explore his or her projected role. Certainly soon after starting work, the engineer should be strongly interested in receiving a written role statement from his or her superior. If no such statement is forthcoming, the engineer may put his or her understanding on paper and ask the responsible manager for review, input, or concurrence. Unless there is agreement on the engineer's role, "performance exceeding expectation" is as improbable as the same person simultaneously dancing at two different wedding receptions located fifty miles apart.

Likewise, during the job interview, an engineer about to graduate should ask about the training opportunities made available or endorsed by the prospective employer. The interviewee must have a goal in mind and this goal must involve professional growth and learning. Learning is obviously a two-component process. While one party offers it and the other absorbs it, the ultimate benefits are shared by both. That being the case, each has a commitment to make. Serious forethought and mutual cooperation are needed to achieve optimized professional training.

As an example, a company could identify a self-motivated employee and ask this employee if he or she would be willing to be the custodian of an electronically stored and searchable engineering library dealing with turbomachinery, pumps, gears, shaft couplings, etc. He or she would then be asked to identify useful Conference Proceedings, published articles and related information on the chosen topic. As mentioned above, the material needs to be indexed and, in one form or another, made accessible to one's peers and other individuals that would be helped by the reference material.

During performance appraisals, the employee and the reviewer/appraiser would make an objective assessment of accomplishments by way of comparison with the previously agreed-upon role statement. Such an assessment would comprise all pertinent training issues and would obviously include measuring the employee's performance with regard to reading and disseminating technical material.

Favorable results anticipated

By accepting help and by being willing to help others succeed, engineers will prosper. Moreover, they will gain a sense of self-worth if they truly pursue training that adds value. Engineers who succeed in acquiring a marketable skill both during formal studies and after graduating from engineering school can face the future with considerable confidence.

Self-motivated engineers who implement and stick to the approaches briefly described here are very likely becoming employees who offer solutions to problems. Instead of becoming folks expressing "concern" over potential problems, they will delineate the discrete steps needed to avoid problems.

Finally then, a few things to ponder:

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