Preventive Maintenance / Condition Monitoring

Why some books are just as reliable as plant assets

Thomas Wilk explores art for engineers.

By Thomas Wilk, editor in chief

A good friend recently shared his surprise and disappointment that some of the books he had read years ago just hadn’t stood the test of time. He named two books that had once had a profound impact on the mind and imagination of his younger self, and he expressed disappointment that, 30 years later, his memories of them were considerably grander than their reality.

The conversation took several different turns after that, with another participant reporting that experience over time changes the body of knowledge that she brought with her to the same book, so the experience of reading it was invariably a different one. Another mentioned that his brain was able to temporarily recall and emulate his younger self enough that he could re-experience the book the same way as he had before.

My reaction was to turn the question around and try to think of any book that was both meaningful the first time I read it and had stayed meaningful over time and multiple re-reads. There have not been many, but three favorites did come to mind: Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

It doesn’t seem to matter how old I am when I pick these books up or what stage of life I’m at. To me, they are assets that function remarkably the same way over time. The engineering side of my brain admires the way each of those writers transforms complex mathematical ideas into art. (Heck, each time I read Jazz it makes me want to blast Giant Steps at top volume on the way to work.) And the literature side of me finds a new piece of wisdom each time I read them – wisdom that probably was impossible to appreciate until I reached the right age or experience level.

Now, no one is ever going to mistake a mounted bearing for Shakespeare, but I think there’s an interesting parallel in the ways that professionals in our industry devote so much of their careers to understanding plant assets over time. Each time you execute a PM, run a route, or deploy a new condition monitoring technology, you’re revisiting an asset and collecting new types of information on how to read its operating condition.

The machines, though, tend to stay the same over time. It’s the plant professionals who change, adding to their knowledge on how assets behave under seasonal operating conditions; earning technical certifications that enable new ways of seeing and hearing the machines; and/or applying advanced algorithms to process terabytes of condition monitoring information, just to tease out one or two new process insights and isolate a precise failure mode.

We hope you like this month’s cover story by Joe Anderson, which starts a two-issue conversation about ways to take the knowledge and wisdom you’ve learned on the job and then improve your approach to asset management over time. But I’ll end this note on a question: Which plant assets have taught you the most about reliability over time?