January 2019

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Reliability: How to deal with time thieves and knowledge parrots

We recently corresponded with an engineer-manager who divides his time between managing a highly productive group of product developers and a growing number of callers that are interested in the innovative solutions his company offers.

Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

We recently corresponded with an engineer-manager who divides his time between managing a highly productive group of product developers and a growing number of callers that are interested in the innovative solutions his company offers. The gentleman has unique qualifications. Trained as a machinist before entering a technical university and ultimately leaving with a doctorate, he is a value-adder with few peers in today’s environment. An astute observer of the world around him, he was disappointed to see how often greed and false pretenses make inroads in business behavior.

FIG. 1. The knowledge parrot is good at picking up bits and pieces, and is always ready to repeat what he “absorbed” from the consultant! Source: Ian Wright Creative, Waltby, UK.
FIG. 1. The knowledge parrot is good at picking up bits and pieces, and is always ready to repeat what he “absorbed” from the consultant! Source: Ian Wright Creative, Waltby, UK.

He had spent considerable time traveling to a potential client a continent away to explain his employer’s product slate. The potential client’s lack of principled conduct was evident as the engineer-manager provided days of free consulting and attempted to cram years of applicable experience into teaching an indifferent audience. It soon became evident that the potential client’s mid-level personnel had their own friends, preferences and allegiances. Acting in the spirit of knowledge parrots (Fig. 1), the potential client’s personnel would later explain to friends and imitation experts what they had learned from the engineer-manager; the engineer-manager had been victimized by being tricked into technology transfer. He leaves with empty pockets, and the potential client profits by stealing the consultant’s time (Fig. 2).

Pre-negotiating is best

My advice to him was to pre-negotiate a fee with potential time thieves and knowledge parrots. In a sense, working for a fee is no different from the invoicing we receive from medical practitioners and legal experts for the services they render. A look back at work we asked to be performed by several companies bidding on large reciprocating process gas compressors in the late 1960s and early 1970s will illustrate what should still be done today.

FIG. 2. The knowledge parrot takes off, and the consultant leaves with empty pockets. Source: Ian Wright Creative, Waltby, UK.
FIG. 2. The knowledge parrot takes off, and the consultant leaves with empty pockets. Source: Ian Wright Creative, Waltby, UK.

On several projects that required either two 100% or three 50% compressors, my employer realized that plot plans and layout drawings could be finalized only after the magnitude of gas pulsations and geometries of pulsation bottles were known. At issue were the acoustic pulsation forces and frequencies generated by these compressors as they operated over a range of throughputs. The magnitude of these forces would affect the piping design and, as we shall describe, provide solid clues regarding vendor competence.1

Our company asked each of the bidders to submit pulsation studies and dimensional outlines ahead of being notified if they, or one of their competitors, were selected as the winning bidder.

We negotiated the fees we would pay for these studies and sketches. All fees would be refunded in full to the bidders that were not awarded the job. The winning bidder was required to include the cost of this upfront work in the total cost of the compressors. A closer investigation of proposed suction drum sizes allowed us to see if these drums were dimensioned for low cost/low overall reliability, or if the vendor had dimensioned these drums for slightly higher cost and considerably higher overall effectiveness. Low-cost suction drums were frowned upon for simple reasons that deserve to be highlighted in the arbitrary example that follows.

Proposed suction drum designs indicate vendor competence

For a required gas flowrate of (1,000) (x) ft3/min, an unduly cost-conscious vendor might trick us into accepting a smallish vessel diameter of 1 ft (to use an arbitrary example). Since volumetric flowrate equals flow velocity (ft/min) multiplied by flow area (ft3), the resulting gas flow velocity would be (1,000) (x) ft/min—which is much too high for entrained liquid globules to disengage from the gas stream.

A more proficient vendor-designer might offer a higher-cost, larger-diameter suction drum that would yield improved productivity and profit. Perhaps this vendor would propose a diameter of 5 ft, in which case the velocity would be only (200) (x) ft/min. This slower velocity would allow liquid globules to drop out, and the gas would exit the drum in the desired closer-to-dry condition. We would view his offer as vendor competence and would prefer this vendor over the competition.

My employer never officially blacklisted a company that built equipment that later proved to be troublesome. However, the machinery groups interfaced with colleagues elsewhere, and the principal machinery engineers from the company’s worldwide affiliates carefully practiced the “three Cs”: communication, cooperation and consideration. They were members of the corporation’s machinery network and met twice yearly with a regional machinery specialist for rigorous information exchanges. Word spread, and some sub-standard manufacturers just faded away.

Pay for the vendor’s effort and let the potential client pay for yours

Our message is twofold:

  • Obtain upfront commitments from time thieves knowledge parrots to reimburse you for time spent and knowledge transferred.
  • If you are the purchaser, be happy to pay for a supplier’s competence. Doing so will return substantial dividends by elevating future asset performance.

Paying for the vendor’s effort and letting the potential client pay for yours makes sense. Those that are intent on taking advantage of others will eventually pay the price. We trust that our engineer-manager accepts the wisdom of our advice. His company will prosper by refusing to support time thieves and knowledge parrots. HP

Literature cited

  1. Bloch, H. P., Petrochemical Machinery Insights, Elsevier Publishing, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016.

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