Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment

I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office.  It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”.  In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.

Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending.  He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat.  He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.

Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah.  We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember…  Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).

Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”?  Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.

I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that.  So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side.  Here is what I wrote:

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Oh yeah.  I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using.  It was too small.

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.

The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things.  You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.

motor coupled to a compressor

motor coupled to a compressor

This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly.  Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.

Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump.  These are called “Feet”.  Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.

A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment.  It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment.  Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).

Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece.  They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants.  He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors.  This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!

So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further.  Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel.  The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).

Here are the notes I made:

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes.  I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).

After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method.  A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel…  When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.

A notepad like this

Handy Dandy Power Plant Notepad

We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased.  Only, there was one problem with this method…  Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet.  That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer.  Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.

Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this.  So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that.  I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)…  So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.

I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.

The short quick version of the calculator program

The short quick version of the calculator program

I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself.  He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.

A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale.  He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it.  I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70.  So, he ordered a better one.

A Casio CFX-9850G

Gary ordered the Casio CFX-9850G

Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time.  After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.

It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together.  This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one.  So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).

So, think about this.  The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do.  The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose.  With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.

Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam.  The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000.  I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time.  It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor.  My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.

The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before.  Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.

Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them.  One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone.  Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker.  Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.

I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love.  It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad?  It’s just a piece of paper.  Geez!”  Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.

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8 responses

  1. Fun read. I remember programming a TI calculator to do inventory management calculations when o was at Peat Marwick to show a client the potential benefit. Powerful little gizmos 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think they are still using that program. One of the new mechanics came to me to see if I could put it on a different calculator. Unfortunately I was unable to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What was the calculator model? I’ll see if I can write something for it.

      Like

  3. Hey, Power Plant Man, we just wanted to stop in to say two things, First, thanks for your support, liking so many of our posts, it surely means a great deal to us,

    Second, yours is among the humbling sites we visit, we know we’ve read something meaningful when we finish one of your emotional and beautifully-illustrated posts, such as “Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment.”

    Are we noticing that you’re re-posting some of your work? Well, if so, we don’t care, it’s all good!

    Are you working on a power-plant screenplay yet?

    Please take care of yourself, and stay cool this summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Filmbell. I have been writing one new post each week for 3 1/2 years. This year I repost my first year posts on Sunday. My second year posts on Tuesday. My third year posts on Thursday. I write a new post each Saturday. This is my last year creating power plant stories. After that. Maybe I will put them in a book or something.

      Like

      1. One post per week for 3.5 years, our sincerest congratulations. And you’ve really gotten somewhere!

        We’re sorry to hear, though, that this will be yr final year of power-plant stories. Proof again that all good things must come to an end.

        Yes, please, create a book of your stories. We’d love to know about it, and then buy it.

        And we’re not kidding about a screenplay. Push three or four of your best stories together, in a meaningful way, there’s a solid screenplay. And Oklahoma should be portrayed in the movies at every opportunity, such a beautiful setting.

        We too are in process of making a book which is similar to, yet entirely different from, the “Sounding” series you’ve seen in our Filmbell site. When there are breakthroughs, we’ll certainly mention them.

        Finally, along with everything else about your site, we like your idea of reposting. That is, a particular year reposted sequentially on a particular day of the week. We might have to steal that idea!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sounds great! I will keep in touch. Kev

        Like

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