Complex problems sow their own solution

Feb. 10, 2009
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, says sometimes complex problems carry the seeds of their own solution.

By the time you read this, Congress almost certainly will have passed and President Obama will have signed into law a bill authorizing a very extensive stimulus plan. Everybody will like parts of it, but no one will support all of it. It won’t work fast enough, but we’ll survive and eventually the global economy will not only turn around, it will roar.

I know this thanks to the old foundry superintendent, Merrill Robbins, at the magnet factory where I worked for 10 years trying to outrun low-cost global suppliers with my fellow blockheads (in the lead shoes that were the common style among U.S. manufacturers in the 1980s).

Like a large percentage of the plant’s workforce, Merrill (may he rest in peace) joined the company right around World War II. He worked his way up from snagging castings to a position rivaling the Heat Treat, Grinding and Mag & Test superintendents. All the while he kept a farm on the side, entertained an extended family and acquired a huge amount of common sense, which he shared with me in a series of tiny, cinder-block offices while chain-smoking Chestertons.

Merrill was a man of vision and action, presiding over 24/7 operation of what was, at the time, the most automated and highest-volume foundry in the magnet business. We employed inert-gas-covered induction furnaces, critical melting sequences and precise temperature controls. We made and poured into permanent, sand, exothermic and precision-casting molds; used directional solidification and controlled our grain sizes.

We monitored our incoming materials and remelted our casting sprues, runners and scrap, which we separated by analysis and used by lot. We cleaned and recycled casting sand, stored hazardous materials, and kept the salt tablet dispensers stocked on hot summer days. We never killed anyone.

As a metallurgist, my job was to help improve product quality as measured by strength and uniformity of magnetic properties at final test. In those days, “improve” often meant “find out what went wrong,” and I spent a lot of time tracing down and correcting the aberrations behind out-of-spec production (scrap).

The properties of a magnet can be compromised or damaged by composition, contamination, casting conditions, heat treatment, grinding and even the circumstances at magnetize and test. Reasons for low properties are more or less invisible and some were poorly understood, so we would theorize, take measurements, run different processes on special lots, and try to arrive at a root cause.

In one case, we thought the problem originated in the foundry, and that we had found it and corrected it. The magnets were coming out fine, so I went to Merrill to congratulate him and his people on their improved quality control. He was not convinced that what we did had solved the problem. He said, “The pendulum swings.”

To my “Huh?” he explained, “We do what we can, but we can’t take credit for the improvement. It’s a complicated process that’s not entirely under our control. Sometimes it goes off course for reasons we don’t understand, but when it does, it’s like a pendulum. It comes back.”

At the time, I thought it was a cop-out. As an engineer, I knew that every effect has a cause, and nothing is likely to get better on its own. And if it does, it’s a lost opportunity for better understanding and preventing a future recurrence. Strike while the iron is hot, figure it out, and put in a big fix.

With time, I’ve come to appreciate his insights. Merrill taught me to always think about the big picture, but to remember that “People are like a bunch of kids — they never really grow up.” He demonstrated the importance of listening, of getting out there in person and seeing for yourself, of getting involved and doing what makes sense promptly, firmly and correctly.

But he also taught me that some things are not entirely under your control, and even when they’re making your life miserable, you may not be able to do a dang thing about them. When that happens, take heart and remember: the pendulum swings.

E-mail Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, at [email protected].

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