What do you know?

July 13th, 2009

Our products have a reputation for their high quality. I have always been told this by managers but I have not necessarily taken them at face value. It is hard to imagine them saying anything else, so if they are only allowed to say one thing why should it be regarded as a meaningful statement? And working at a production facility, I hear lots of stories about quality issues that have gone wrong. I hear how they have been corrected and rumors of how they have been ignored.

A while back an issue came up with one of our tools. This particular tool is powered by compressed air. As it ran the tool was heating up beyond the established limit. I have no idea who set this limit. I don’t think the heat level was enough to cause an actual burn. I don’t know if the limit was some hyper-sensitive OSHA-type legal statute or a basically arbitrary company specification or whatever else may have been involved. I only know the tool was going above the limit.

The search began for component parts that were too large (by thousandths of an inch), creating excessive friction. Nothing could be identified. Finally, after a long time of delaying the product, I heard that they were trying a new strategy: let some of the air powering the tool blow on the parts that got hot, and don’t run the tool so long when testing it.

This sounded totally absurd. A little extra airflow can’t possibly solve a mysterious problem caused by excessive mechanical friction by metal parts rubbing at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute. And shutting the tool off sooner in the test is a really fool-proof way of making sure it doesn’t get too hot. Tough luck for someone actually using the tool on the job, but it would then pass the test.

After commenting sarcastically on this solution to several coworkers over several days, I actually asked people with technical knowledge why we would consider this a valid solution. Then it was explained to me that the heat will actually continue to climb after the tool is shut off, above the maximum temperature it would reach while running. The same thing can happen with cars, which is why the fan will sometimes start on car with the engine off. And air can be an effective coolant–again this ultimate coolant for a car, albeit with two types of liquid coolants intermediating. But compressed air running at high volume through a small area will be especially effective. The volume means that any given unit of air is required to dissipate less heat; and the fact that it is industrial compressed air means that it is cold. Compressing air reduces its volume which tends to reduce its temperature. Compressed air can make tools so cold that they frost over.

All of this information I already knew as separate facts, I just didn’t take the time to ponder the issue until I saw the sense in the solution; I jumped to the assumption that we were making a cheap play to resolve a troublesome issue that we didn’t want to own up to. This is why I am not the company spokesperson.

More recently, an employee of our plant anonymous told a local paper that our facility would be closed. This anonymous tipper had no source for his information, nor was there the slightest indication that he had a position in the company where he might be privy to such information. (As an aside, I have heard comments from both the HR manager and the plant manager indicating that neither of them expects much advance warning if a closure decision is made; so there really isn’t anyone in the plant at all who I think would have prior knowledge of a closure decision.) However, this anonymous tipper shared his pessimistic view with the newspaper, which asked the official corporate spokesperson for a comment. I’ll bet you donuts and coffee the paper first tried to get a comment from the local staff and was referred to corporate. At any rate, the corporate spokesperson would neither confirm no deny this rumor.

Please refer to the opening remark. If there is only one statement they are allowed to make, why should it be considered meaningful? But I had two people point to that statement from the corporate representative as an ominous sign, as proof we would close. I usually don’t even hear a rumor until it is two days old, so for two people to mention it to me made this a very hot rumor indeed–even if it amounted to being scared of one’s own echo.

Much more plausible was the tip I got from my colleague at another facility that they were going to be closed. This colleague has a much longer work history and deeper connections. In the latest of a series of layoffs a number of other employees were let go on Friday, and then our manager suddenly made plans to fly up on Monday during heavy travel restrictions. In fact some people at another location thought our boss was going to be there on Monday. That’s about as certain of doom as you can possibly get.

But that was wrong too. They are still there.

I always want to be more plugged into the rumor network. Whenever something big happens I hear the rumors had it a week before it went down. But I am starting to remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day.