Good Vibrations Analysis

The job of editing for a business to business publication doesn't come with a huge array of perks, but there is one great one. We enjoy pretty free run of the trade show and education resources available to plant people. I've spent most of this week in production geek nirvana, studying vibration analysis with Update International at a training session in the Chicago area.

Graduates of the Practical Solutions training know how to create, using just accelerometers and PCs, charts capturing the vibration at various points on rotating equipment. Then they can read three-axis results in a way that provides very precise data on what kind of movement is occurring and what part of the equipment is involved. They can identify moving parts down to specific bearing races and gears that are generating noise and vibration, as well as the resulting wear and fatigue.

Experienced analysts can also determine the degree of degradation of bearings, couplings, and gears. From this information they can tell equipment owners approximately how much time is available to obtain replacement parts or equipment. They can also identify which parts, down to specific bearings and gears are generating noise and vibration. All this comes from charts that look like my uncle Fred's very last EKG.

Some of the analysis might seem like techie overkill when applied to rattling fan shrouds and beat-up conveyor bearings. These can be spotted with ultrasound or thermography, but consider this: When a refinery or a generating facility shuts down a turbine or gearbox, paying someone else a few thousand bucks an hour to keep the grid hot, they would like to know exactly what parts will need to be changed and exactly how long it will take to do it. They would like to know exactly how soon they need to perform the maintenance. They would like very much to know whether it can wait for an already-scheduled shutdown.

A complete vibration analysis, supported by oil analysis and perhaps ultrasonic and/or thermographic leak and heat flow detection, can paint an amazingly detailed picture of the work to be done. With sound planning and scheduling, the job can be completed in a fraction of the time that would have been required without the diagnostic information. And during the wait for shutdown, breakdown risk is diminished dramatically.

When maintenance staff themselves have the ability to make these kinds of analyses they create a three-way competitive boost for the organization: Being on site, they can provide the information that is needed in a timely and understandable way. Since they wear both hats (analyst and mechanic), they don't represent an underutilized resource that sits around while normal maintenance is performed. Finally, their diagnostic and mechanical skills inform each other in a way that makes them far more effective in both roles than specialists would be.

We live in a world where baby boomer retirements and career expectations fashioned by TV are taking a lot of smart people away from industries where they are needed. The resulting shortage is hurting America's production performance and creating ridiculous levels of unemployment at the same time. It is heartwarming to see firms sending their members to this kind of training to help fill the skill gap. The knowledge growth is fulfilling for the workers and it will pay important financial dividends in plant maintenance programs.

This week's class was attended by mature journeymen, apprentices, engineers, and a guy in camo who couldn’t share a lot of details about his work. There was even a father and son team who were there to help provide the son with some solid background for his training as an engineer. Dad was game for a refresher, too.

A Google search on "vibration analysis training" will yield Update International ( and several other reputable training firms. Sending interested maintenance and reliability professionals to their courses can provide exciting performance results. It can also provide guys like me with exciting weeks of full-immersion geekspeak.