July 12, 2018
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Engineers, Technicians, and Tradesmen… balancing of resources is key to efficiency

As the son of a now retired Tool & Die Maker I grew up hearing stories of how my dad and his fellow tradesmen were constantly “fixing poor engineering.” With my decision to go to engineering school dad admonished me to engineer with excellence. Many years later I was consulting with a company in Germany that was looking to move their assembly operations to Poland as part of a low cost country sourcing strategy. The German assembly technicians had an average of 25 years of hands on experience and in Poland the average age of all workers in the entire facility was 25. The company experienced great difficulty in the move because the German engineers made electrical drawings that simply showed a wire between terminal A and terminal B as a straight line between the connection points. They had become spoiled because in the German assembly operations the highly experienced technicians knew things like you need to twist the pairs of signal wires and do not run low voltage signal wires on top of high voltage power transmission lines… When the Polish workers assembled they did what the print said and simply ran wires straight from terminal A to terminal B. Now the tug-of-war began where the German engineers complained that the Polish technicians had poor workmanship while the Polish technicians complained about the lazy German engineers who could not properly draft an electrical print. This weekend I was talking with a friend and he mentioned that he was not an engineer but rather a re-engineer. What he meant was that he worked for an automation company and led the assembly and installation team. Much of his job involved modifying or “fixing” things in the actual build of the machinery that was not comprehended in the design and would ultimately lead to the machine not working when completed. So who is right? In reality they are all correct. Given infinite engineering resources and time a robust design followed by comprehensive digital simulation, validated by successive prototype building and testing resulting in the ability to created detailed CAD models containing all the GD&T anyone could ask for, step-by-step instructions, plus a FMEA based final product testing and validation plan is possible. After which anyone capable of building a Lego® set should be able to successfully build the product, with excellence. Alternately when I was in college I was on the SAE Supermileage team and one of my teammates did a CAD design of a cylinder head for our car. Since I had a Tool & Die Maker dad I volunteered him to fabricate the head. Since dad can almost literally build anything the cylinder head was no big deal. That said, an engineering student’s design was far from “robust” and dad had to make several modifications to the design in order for us to have an end product that allowed us to achieve 1,281 miles per gallon performance at the competition. The drawing we gave to dad was more than a sketch on a napkin but he probably could have produced the same end result with just a napkin sketch. In this example, if a company has infinite highly skilled tradesmen and technicians then their engineering teams can use a lot of shortcuts while still achieving an excellent end result. The problems arise when optimization of the design and development process occurs at the functional rather than a system level. If a tremendous amount of engineering is coupled with extreme technician talent and experience the end result will no doubt be fantastic, although my experience is that these groups can often become warring factions in an organization arguing over whose ideas are best. This is also a very expensive way to get to the end result. Equally flawed and often more painful is the opposite, as in the German/Polish example above, where the engineering team takes shortcuts for efficiency or just lack of bandwidth reasons and the trades are young and inexperienced. While low in cost initially the lack of quality and poor product performance issues the customer experiences more than offset any savings. The right answer is different for every company. A friend once said that a company’s strategy is like a toothbrush… every company needs one, you just don’t need someone else’s! Balancing engineering rigor with the level of technician talent is key. In a particular industry or market one resource or the other may be easier to acquire or grow. In addition to finding the right balance, having the right tools available for those resources is also important. At TECAT we make wireless telemetry systems that are used by R&D teams and field service technicians. Some of our customers prefer other company’s telemetry systems that use inductive powering and data transmission. These systems require much more installation time to run wires and position components but after installation a vehicle field test engineer never needs to recharge a battery during testing. If a company has an excess of technician capacity and the luxury of lots of room on their product for the system then this might be the best answer. By contrast our radio telemetry systems are almost trivial to install given their small size, light weight, and extreme transmission distance compared to inductive systems. However, in the field a USB charger or magnetic inductive charging puck needs to be attached to recharge the battery, usually once a week. Here the technician time requirement is greatly reduced while some additional field test engineer time is needed. A similar situation exists with our wireless load cell application for artificial lift systems in the Oil and Gas industry. Traditional wired load cells see millions of cycles of up and down motion every year. The wires connecting these load cells to the controls are prone to fatigue failure and in long stroke or high wind installations this can be as often as 4 times a year. TECAT’s wireless solution eliminates this failure mode but does require an annual battery change. Unlike the wire replacement which must be done by an electrician, often a contractor, with specialized equipment like a bucket truck, the battery replacement can be done by a well tender already going to the pump usually with just a ladder. With electricians in short supply in the oil fields this makes for a compelling value proposition. TECAT’s mission is to provide simple wireless information-gathering solutions to markets and products where data monitoring and interpretation involve a high degree of technical complexity and skill. If your company’s testing or field support strategy can be further optimized through the application of such solutions our team is ready to help.

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