A career or an adventure in machinery reliability

Fig. 1: Patent diagram of cotton tip machine.By HEINZ P. BLOCH
Reliability/Equipment Editor

In a recent letter, an experienced reliability professional recommended that we (engineers) share how we decided and became the professionals that we are today. This engineer suggested a future article on my life experiences as related to machinery reliability. In short, he believes that it is important to share the life experiences of a professional reliability engineer with a career spanning over 50 years. More importantly, this article would link the experiences of solving numerous reliability problems and the “lessons learned.” Likewise, the article would also share the mistakes and misunderstandings that occurred as well. Remember: Failure is an excellent teacher.   

Looking back. Working as a reliability engineer for over 50 years, I have had a few success stories and gaffes too. For example, I could write about the slip-up in Spain, where I forgot to drain the cooling water from a compressor after it had tripped out. Unfortunately, this reciprocating compressor was used in ammonia service when it tripped out, and the cooling water in the compressor jacket had frozen thus causing a cylinder head to fail. A resourceful mechanic from a boat diesel-engine repair shop placed the cylinder head and its cast iron fragments onto a bed of glowing charcoal and preheated the various parts over two days. He then brazed the pieces into their respective locations and covered the entire job with glowing charcoal. The cylinder head and parts cooled at a slow, predetermined rate over several days. That day, this diesel-engine repair man became my hero. He had the knowledge to solve a difficult mechanical problem.

Learning a marketable skill early. I was born in Germany in 1933 and was brought up in the southwestern part of the country. Languages, mathematics, geography, history, physics and chemistry were among the mandatory subjects taught in German high schools from 1945 until my graduation in 1950. In mid-1950, the country still showed deep scars of war-related devastation; rebuilding efforts had barely begun. The unemployed chipped mortar from billions of bricks and stacked these bricks in seemingly endless walls. Much of what had remained of the nation’s industry had been dismantled and shipped to former occupied countries as partial reparation. In those days, there were few jobs. Fortunately, I had very good grades in physics and found an apprenticeship as a telephone technician. At age 16, I was able to obtain my first bicycle. I used it to travel to work locations--usually a doctor’s office or hospital—that needed my services. Back then, we (technicians) arrived at the job site before 7:30 AM and left for home after 5:30 PM. On Saturdays, we worked until 1 PM and were allowed to go home only after washing and polishing the master craftsman’s pride and joy, a 1949-model VW with bow-legged rear axles. 

Fig. 2: Patent diagram of noncontacting seal for centrifuge inlet.
Opportunity presents itself to those who work hard.
In 1952, a family acquaintance who had immigrated to New Jersey in the mid-1920s briefly visited Germany again. The gentleman offered to sponsor me if I ever desired to immigrate to the US. In 1952, the gap in the respective standards-of-living of impoverished Germany and affluent America was simply indescribable. Anyone with a chance to establish themselves in countries such as Canada, Australia, or the US took advantage of the offer. I was intent on starting a new life across the ocean.

But then, as today, I always completed my tasks or assignments. My priority was to pass the journeyman’s exam, which I did in 1953, a few weeks before boarding the SS United States. This incredible turbine-driven ocean liner remained in service until 1969; it had a top speed of 49.5 mph. This vessel still holds the record for the fastest Atlantic crossings by a passenger vessel in both directions. On March 21,1953, the ship tied up at a pier on the Manhattan side of the Hudson River. As my sponsor took me across the George Washington Bridge, he explained his research on my potential employment at a telephone company. Unfortunately, there was no such possibility. The country still worried about infiltration of noncitizens into the electronic communications fields. 

Learning new marketable skills. Within days, I started working at my sponsor’s 40-employee machine shop and earning $1/hr. The shop had every conceivable machine tool: lathes, milling machines, shapers, jig bore mills, grinders and so forth. We manufactured a mix of parts and subassemblies, usually in small lots. Among them were small geared oil pumps for scale missiles, gyroscope components, fully mechanical Hollerith-card guided embroidery machines, adjustable-width book binding machines for small press runs, and cadmium-plated contraptions that would spray icing on mass-produced coffee cakes. I often did silver soldering on cadmium-plated components, and my shop foreman always warning me not to breathe the fumes.

The well-trained and qualified tool & die makers at this shop earned average wages of $2.40/hr. Each of these craftsmen owned Vernier calipers, Brown & Sharpe brand micrometers, dial and lever-style indicators, “wigglers” (which were used to locate the edge and/or center of a drilled hole) and dozens of hand tools. All were neatly placed in their rather expensive Starrett tool boxes, which came with large and small felt-lined drawers. Only the more expensive granite plates and sets of Johannson Gage Blocks belonged to the shop.

We washed our hands and arms in buckets of carbon tetrachloride. In my spare time (such as half of my lunch hour), I crafted many of my own tools. A few of these tools, including screw drivers, a hammer, extended-length drill bits, parallel clamps, I still have them in my tool box. They are now slightly rusted; however, in the early 1950s, a light coat of Vaseline was applied after each use to protect the tools from New Jersey’s moisture-laden air.

Fig. 3: Patent diagram for diaphragm-style couplings. Wage increases were relatively frequent; they came in increments of 5¢/hr or 10¢/hr. Although I was a fast learner, I recognized that there was a huge knowledge gap between me and the 30 to 40 year-old, well-trained, tool & die makers. I wanted to catch up and to improve my technical job skills and be on the path to becoming a certified tool designer. It seemed a reasonable route. So, I enrolled in a four-year program of evening courses at the Industries Training School (ITS) in Hoboken. This non-degree vocational facility was actually a branch of the Stevens Institute of Technology. To make the 40-mi round trip from the machine shop in Bergenfield, New Jersey to the ITS location three evenings per week, I bought a used vehicle with a miserable two-speed automatic transmission.

The Korean War was over, but the two-year military draft obligation was still in force by mid-1955. After basic training and a few additional weeks of advanced training on repairing gasoline-engine-driven electric power generators, the military assigned me to its Army Electronic Proving Grounds in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Infiltration of the country’s communication systems was no longer a concern, and I was simply a legal immigrant subject to the draft. In 1958, I became a US citizen, after the mandatory five-year waiting period.

Never stop learning. I had passed the college entrance exams while still at Fort Huachuca in late 1956 or early 1957 and had been accepted to begin studies in mechanical engineering. Still, I wanted neat closure on my tool design studies; so, from mid-1957 until 1958, I completed the ITS schooling while putting away some savings.  I was now a certified tool designer and looked forward to extra course credit at a fully accredited engineering college. From 1958 until 1962, I pursued full-time studies at the Newark College of Engineering (“NCE”, now New Jersey Institute of Technology) while working part-time at either my old sponsor’s machine shop or at a larger tool & die facility in Newark. In 1961, my hourly rate was now a royal $3.75; tuition at NCE was $256 per semester, and I received full credit for some machine shop work and engineering drawing courses. Life was easy, except for mistakes that have nothing to do with engineering studies (and which my editors would delete from this article anyway).

Because I quite obviously enjoyed machine design courses, I received and accepted a lucrative job offer from Johnson & Johnson (J&J) a few months ahead of graduation with a BS degree in mechanical engineering.  Two days after graduation, J&J assigned me to exciting work focused on machines for the production of cotton-tipped applicators. A patent drawing, Fig. 1, shows an older indexing-style stop-go-stop-go version of such a machine, but the later iterations were continuous-operating and spat out close to 4,000 finished applicators per minute. J&J did not apply for patents on the continuous production machines because doing so would have disclosed too many nice design details to both present and future competitors.

J&J encouraged and paid for night courses toward an MS degree in mechanical engineering for this author. I completed these courses in two years and, in late 1964, decided that better opportunities were available with Esso (later Exxon) Research & Engineering (ER&E). This branch of Exxon was using brilliant training approaches. New employees were mentored and tutored by experts. Initial job assignments for future machinery specialists included participation in machinery selection tasks and the startup of new facilities. My personal exposure in this regard included taking my young family on assignments to Italy, Spain, England, Japan and The Netherlands. Longer relocations included Louisiana and Texas. Each assignment required feeding back lessons learned; this feedback usually found its way into more refined specifications for equipment procurement, work practices and operating procedures. 

The assignment in Spain resulted in feedback on what compressors to avoid in a cyclohexane plant; the assignment in Japan allowed ER&E to patent a solution to xylene spillage (Fig. 2); conversion to diaphragm-style couplings in France was facilitated by using a “home-modified” State Farm Insurance decal (Fig. 3). Shining a stroboscopic light on this decal allowed us to observe shaft thermal growth on an operating turbo-machine.
Fig. 4: Patent diagram for novel seal-oil degassing system using a sparger.
We also implemented novel seal-oil degassing systems (Fig. 4) and explained the pluses and minuses of various styles of rotating labyrinth and/or magnetic bearing protector seals. As reliability engineers, we inevitably learned from others and were neither indifferent nor arrogant. We knew what questions to ask of vendors and how to challenge claims that certain machinery malfunctions had never been experienced elsewhere (e.g., you must be doing something wrong). We also knew how machines must be operated and why we could not always depend on the machinery manufacturer for timely and solidly executed long-term solutions to machinery problems. 

All the while, tutoring and mentoring continued at ER&E and Exxon Chemical’s Central Engineering office, my last assignment. As machinery engineers, we had access to management sponsors who listened to our well thought-out recommendations on topics such as plant-wide oil-mist lubrication (1965), adopting diaphragm-style couplings (1970), cost-justified applications for synthetic lubricants (1972), using high-temperature mechanical seals in small steam turbines where others (still) continue to use wear-prone carbon rings (1980), etc. 

One time, we diagnosed the relationship between misalignment and bearing instability on a major turbo-compressor in a world-scale olefins plant. We could easily calculate that the outboard bearing support should be raised a particular incremental distance to bring the shafts into alignment with each other. We then hired and supervised a heat treatment contractor tasked with wrapping heating coils around the outboard bearing support. Temperature sensors and insulation were added and the support heated to 450°F. The instability problem went away, and the compressor stayed on line until a regularly scheduled plant shutdown much later. These were among the experiences, provisions, and events I usually enjoyed. And I always shared what I had learned, and gratefully acknowledge the years from 1965 until the opportunity to retire early presented itself in 1986.

Second chapter. Since then, I have been involved in hundreds of teaching assignments on all six continents and have traveled to 42 different countries for brief consulting work. A few of my 18 books were co-authored with others. Some books I did on my own, while carefully and respectfully acknowledging the contributions of others. A few years ago, I started to sign over all future rights to new editions or book updates to former co-authors, the future value-adders. In all, I have written 288 consecutive HP Reliability columns for Hydrocarbon Processing (HP). There also are 308 conference papers, articles or whatever. It has been great fun, and actually includes sparring with an occasional detractor.

Continuing the conversation. Please note that an HP reader asked that I share my story, and it was the initiator for this editorial. To continue this conversation, I would be delighted to see you at the 30th International Pump Users Symposium in Houston, Texas, Sept. 22-25, 2014. You may consider attending my tutorial on “Breaking the Cycle of Pump Repairs” or might simply meet me at the Gulf Publishing Co.’s exhibit. I would be pleased to sign a copy of HP for you.


Fig. 1. Patent diagram of cotton tip machine.
Fig. 2. Patent diagram of noncontacting seal for centrifuge inlet.
Fig. 3. Patent diagram for diaphragm-style couplings. 
Fig. 4. Patent diagram for novel seal-oil degassing system using a sparger.