Better maintenance decisions through wise resource usage

Tom Moriarty says listen to others to minimize risk.

By Tom Moriarty

I had a job where my team was responsible to provide maintenance to ships. Over one short period of time we had two ships with different problems. Both problems involved ALCO 251 V-18 propulsion diesel engines. Both problems involved a key decision-maker; each had a different approach to solving their problems. The key decision-makers were the engineer officers, or chief engineers; we will refer to these fellows as Larry and Rob.

Larry’s problem surfaced during a routine, homeport maintenance period a week or two before the next deployment. A lower-end inspection of the propulsion diesel engines uncovered that there were several main bearing cap and connecting rod bearing cap bolts that had deformation around the head of the bolts; these bolts had been installed improperly during the previous engine overhaul more than four years earlier.

Larry immediately demanded that all main bearing and connecting rod bolts be replaced. There was no way that we could procure all new bolts, remove the old bolts, put the new bolts in, and run the engine to ensure the job was complete before the next scheduled deployment. It would also disrupt several other planned jobs and cause other ships to stay at sea longer to cover Larry’s ship’s mission.

The problem with the bolt heads was really not a big problem. The deformed bolts had been in place for at least 960,000,000 cycles; over four years, the ship deployed half of each year (4,000 hours), and the engines would typically run continuously at a minimum of 1,000 rpm on average. In mechanical engineering there is a design technique in which parts are designed to tolerate at least 10,000,000 cycles without failure. Such a part would be considered to be beyond fatigue limits, for practical purposes. In this case, the deformed bolts were 96 times the practical fatigue limits, meaning it was highly unlikely that any of the deformed bolts would fail during the next patrol.

Unimpressed with decades of engineering practice, Larry, the hard head, vehemently argued with us and was angry that he would have to accept the decision; he offered no reasonable argument to support his case other than “those bolts look funny.” Larry lacked the capacity to accept facts and opinions of others. He was ordered to make his scheduled deployment.

Upon his return from and uneventful patrol 10 weeks later, we had received the replacement bolts, checked the quantity and quality, and had all the right technicians scheduled, prepared, and ready to work. The job was completed efficiently, and there was no impact on mission schedules.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at

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Rob was engineer officer on the second ship. His problem was found in the middle of a patrol. All the ships of its class received a message that there had been a batch of defective cam shafts found in the inventory system. The defect involved a problem with hardening of cam lobes. This resulted in pitting of the cam lobe surfaces. During a routine fueling and provisioning stop in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the crew inspected the cam lobes and found pitting; they had defective cam shafts.

Rob looked at the severity and possibility that the pitting could result in a major failure. Could the cam followers still work properly? Could a small piece of debris find its way into an internal oil port or damage a journal bearing? Rob reviewed his oil analysis reports, checked with other cutters that had pitting issues, quickly gathered data on the rate of pitting, investigated the location of where pitting might deposit debris inside the engine, and surmised that the risk of failure or collateral damage would be small. Rob recommended that his ship complete mission on schedule and communicated his intention to colleagues. A consensus formed supporting his decision. Rob completed the mission and returned to port on schedule, where we had the parts, quality checks, procedures, skilled technicians, and time to do the job without rushing.

All decisions involve some amount of risk. By doing analysis and research and communicating his reasoning, Rob did the right thing. He allowed others to provide their views, and a consensus developed. By communicating expertise and thought processes, you can instill confidence in your decision-making.

The lesson here is to be professional; be a Rob, not a Larry. When confronted with a problem, use the resources at your disposal, be open to factual or expert input from others, and make the best decisions you can. All decisions involve risk, but, by thinking and communicating, you minimize and manage risk.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.