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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.