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Learning Vibration Analysis

Every year we gather at NTPC, Noida, for our animated dialog on real life Vibration problems. This year there were 39 of us happily engaged for four fun filled days. It is a type of annual conference where engineers and practicing vibration specialists across the country come together to interact, exchange and learn from each other.

This year, the workshop was designed differently. We gently moved away from the traditional methods of vibration analysis and instead emphasized the application of complexity science in analyzing system problems through vibration patterns. I think this approach is the first of its kind in the world.

So, what was new?

First, only cases from the real world of engineering were discussed and explored. Twenty cases were discussed. Each case was unique. They were something like Zen koans waiting to be cracked for enlightenment.

Why?

There are two sides to reality. One is the phenomenal one — what we can sense. The other is the essential one — what we can’t “see” through our senses. The phenomenal side manifest as events that we experience while the essential side provides the cause that precipitates such events. Problems of vibration offer us the opportunity to explore both sides of reality. Through measurements, we can easily see the phenomenal one (the degrees of freedom, amounts of vibration and their frequencies) — that is all about sensing oscillatory movement and its nature. But to understand the cause of vibration we must be able to “see” the essential part of reality – what induces vibration?

The cases forced the participants (practicing specialists) to take multiple takes and interpretations of the cause of vibration before the reason finally clicked. Initially, each case left the participants perplexed.They sort of provided the proverbial “whack” on the head for realization to dawn.

Why is this so? Cracking one problem does not ensure that the next problem can be solved by following the same method. If one tries to use the same method that helped one to solve a problem one has to use thoughts and concepts culled through previous experiences. By trying to apply a standard method and tactic one can’t see the essential part of the reality, which often proves to be a frustrating experience. Any effort to solve a vibration problem with a standard approach ties up a practitioner in knots. Not surprisingly, even vibration specialists find vibration problems paradoxical. They are paradoxical in the sense that seemingly logical, rational and conceptual thinking held in the minds of a practitioner are challenged when dealing with vibration problems.

Therefore, for each case, the essential part — the induced cause(s) — had to be built separately — bit by bit — connecting one bit to the other till the essential nature of the problem was self evident.

At the end of the four days the participants were left smiling, relieved to know that they need not remember any standard method or approach or a formula to tackle vibration problems — more so, for the most complex ones. They only need to see through a problem with patience or perseverance to develop deep intuitive capability, which would then help them see through the essential nature of any real life vibration problem quickly and accurately.

On the whole it was great fun and we all basked in the enjoyment.

 

Note: In conducting this course, I was helped by Mr. Anil Sahu, my co-facilitator. He had a bunch of paradoxical cases to share.

The Case of Burning BagHouse Filters

Recently I was invited to investigate a case of frequent burning of baghouse filter bags.

There were five such baghouses connected to five furnaces of a steel plant.

The client reasoned that the material of the bags was not suitable for the temperature of the gas it handled. However, with change of material the frequency of bag burning did not change. So it needed a different approach to home onto the reasons for the failures.

Hence, this is how I went about solving the case:

First I did a Weibull analysis of the failures. Engineers use Weibull distribution to quickly find out the failure pattern of a system. Once such a pattern is obtained an engineer can then go deeper in studying the probability distribution function (pdf). Such a pdf provides an engineer with many important clues. The most important clue it provides is the reason for such repeated failures, which are broadly classified as follows:

  1. Design related causes
  2. Operation and Maintenance related causes
  3. Age related causes.

In this case it turned out to be a combination of Design and Age related causes.

It was a vital clue that then guided me to look deeper to isolate the design and age related factors affecting the system.

I then did a modified FMEA (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis) for the two causes.

The FMEA revealed many inherent imperfections that were related to either design or aging.

Broadly, the causes were:

  1. Inability of the FD cooler (Forced Draft cooler) to take out excess heat up to the design limit before allowing the hot gas to enter the bag house.
  2. Inappropriate sequence of cleaning of the bag filters. It was out of sync with the operational sequence thus allowing relatively hot dust to build up on the surface of the bags.

Next, the maintenance plan was reviewed. The method used was Review of Equipment Maintenance (REM). The goal of such a review is to find maintenance tasks that are either missing or redundant for which new tasks are either added/deleted or modified. With such modification of the maintenance plan the aim is to achieve a balance between tasks that help find out incipient signals of deterioration and tasks that would help maintain longevity and stability of the system for a desired period of time.

Finally the investigation was wrapped up by formulating the Task Implementation Plan (TIP). It comprised of 13 broad tasks that were then broken up into more than 100 sub-tasks with scheduled dates for completion and accountability.

 

Observing Complexity

To me, observing real life systems is something like this:

A real life System comprises of a meaningful set of objects, diverse in form, state and function but inter-related through multiple network of interdependencies through mutual feedbacks enclosed by variable space, operating far from its equilibrium conditions not only exchanging energy and matter with its environment but also generating internal entropy to undergo discrete transformation triggered by the Arrow of Time forcing it to behave in a dissipative but self organizing manner to either self destruct itself in a wide variety of ways or create new possibilities in performance and/or behaviour owing to presence of ‘attractors’ and ‘bifurcations’; thereby making it impossible to predict the future behaviour of the system in the long term or trace the previous states of the system with any high degree of accuracy other than express it in terms of probabilities since only the present state of the system might be observable to a certain extent and only a probabilistic understanding may be formulated as to how it has arrived at its present state and what would keep it going, thus triggering creative human responses to manage, maintain and enhance the system conditions, function and purpose and create superior systems of the future for the benefit of the society at large.

Such a representation of an observation looks quite involved. Perhaps it might be stated in a much simpler way. Most real life systems behave in a complex manner creating multitude of problems of performance and failures. But how do we get rid of complexity and uncertainty as exhibited by systems? We may do so by deeply observing the complex behaviour of the system to improve our perception to gain insights about the essence of the system; find out the underlying ‘imperfection’ that causes the apparent complexity and uncertainty and then find ways to improve the existing system or create new system and maintain them in the simplest possible manner. We do this by applying the principles of chaos, reliability and design. Surprisingly, the same process might be used to troubleshoot and solve problems we face on a daily basis. If done, we are no longer dominated or dictated by the ‘special whims’ of the system.

The crux of the matter is how we observe reality and understand it so as to make meaningful choices as responses to life and living.

Negative Stiffness and Instability

The idea of negative stiffness might appear at first glance to be counter intuitive but that is what happens often to machinery in the real world. When such a phenomenon strikes, it triggers rapid deterioration of a machinery system.

Positive stiffness is a material property that tries to resist a force when applied on to a material, i.e. it tries to push back the force.

On the other hand, negative stiffness is a property that amplifies the deformation of a material when force is applied to a body.

Since such amplification is non-linear by nature it forces the system to go far away from its equilibrium position. When it does so, the system become unstable and as deformation quickly increases, the system fails.

The best possible way to detect the sudden appearance of negative stiffness is to monitor the displacement parameter of vibration. This is because displacement is related to stiffness. When displacement increases disproportionately without a corresponding increase in velocity parameter we would know that the phenomenon is that of negative stiffness. In addition, we might also notice a variation in the displacement readings. They don’t tend to settle to a steady state.

Negative stiffness might occur in many ways. It may happen when interference or push fitted elements come loose. It often happens to elements that are deformed over time like foundation supports or are pre-stressed like anti-friction bearings. It might happen when elements are worn out by a certain extent by different wear processes like corrosion or abrasive wear.

But in all cases, a very small change induces a system with positive stiffness to flip to negative stiffness, causing catastrophic damages and failures.

 

Note:

For a lucid understanding of the nature of negative stiffness you may refer to this article.

For an understanding of negative stiffness and isolation you may see this.

Creativity in Solving Complex Problems

The other day, at the end of my seminar on “Solving Complex Engineering Problems” a delegate asked me as to whether the entire process of solving complex problems can be automated in some way by means of a software instead of relying on human creativity.

Such a response wasn’t unexpected. In the corporate world the word “creativity” is often looked at with suspicion. They would rather prefer structured and standard approaches like “brainstorming” at 10.00 am sharp or team work or collaborative effort, which in my opinion do little to help anyone solve complex problems or even address complex problems correctly.

That might be the single most important reason why “complex problems” remain unresolved for years affecting profitability and long term sustenance of an organization. Failing to resolve complex problems for years often earns such problems the sobriquet of “wicked problems”, which means that such problems are too tough for “any expert” to come to grips with.

What they sadly miss out is the role of creativity in solving complex problems, which no automation or technology can ever replicate. They miss this because most organizations systemically smother or mercilessly boot out any remnant of creativity in their people since they think that it is always easier to control and manage a regimented workforce devoid of even elementary traces of creativity.

So, is managing creativity and creative people a messy affair? On the surface it seems so. This is simply because we generally have a vague idea of what drives, inspires and really sustains creativity?

Creativity is not about wearing hair long or wearing weird clothes, singing strange tunes, coming to office late and being rude to bosses for no apparent reasons. These things hardly make anyone creative or help anyone become a more creative person.

Actually, things like “being attentive and aware”, “sensitive”, “passionate”, “concerned”, “committed” and above all “inventive” just might be the necessary ingredients to drive, inspire and sustain creativity.

Why?

Though there are many ways of describing and defining creativity what I like best is – “creativity is the expression of one’s understanding and expression of oneself” – deeper the understanding better the expression of creativity.

When we look at creativity in this manner it is obvious that we are all creative though the expression and its fidelity might vary to a great extent. Clearly, some are simply better than others.

Further, if creativity may be thought about as a process, then the inputs and the clarity of understanding of ourselves are more valuable elements of the system than the outputs that the process anyway consistently churns out (remember the uncountable hours we spent in organization meeting, discussing and brainstorming to solve complex problems).

In these days of economic depressions, organizations can really do themselves a huge favor if only they pay more attention to facilitating such inputs to people rather than get overtly worried about control and management by conformity.

When would an Elephant Waltz?

Once upon a time, a large industrial group wanted to set up a large, modern and efficient cement plant as a greenfield project. It was an ambitious plan that would help the company capture a big untapped market. Hence, they wanted to bring up the plant as fast as possible.

So, first things first. They got the land and the limestone mine of relatively good quality. And they also got a CEO who they thought would deliver the project on time. Since it was a greenfield project they thought that a very disciplined person would fit the bill nicely. Therefore a senior retired army Colonel was selected for the purpose.

As soon as he was appointed, he set about the task with all seriousness of an army officer. He understood about projects and engagements. He has done that all his life in the army. He understood command and control very well. That was his forte. But though he was an engineer by training he had absolutely no idea what a cement plant was made of.

Hence to deliver a quality project in time, he hit upon a splendid plan backed up by an ‘infallible’ logic. The logic was that he would get the best machines or sub-systems of the plant from the best suppliers of the world and then he would just put them together so that the plant performs as designed, right from the first day. But how would he understand what was the “best” pieces of equipment and subsystems for the plant? He decided to survey the existing plants, go through their records of performance and reliability, collect facts to find out what part or sub-system of the system worked best for Plant X and then what worked best for Plant Y and so on. Reliability would be his benchmark and vision.

So he decided that he would buy the kiln from supplier A and the cooler from supplier B and the hammer crusher from supplier C and the conveying system from supplier D and the cement mill from supplier E and so on.. When he placed his ideas before the board they found his idea to be wonderful. They were convinced that it would take the least time for procurement and for setting up the plant since they would avoid lengthy negotiations and hassles if they decided what to buy and from whom to buy these from. After all it would not pose any problem. They were buying the best things from the best possible suppliers around the globe.

Colonel went about his task with gusto, precision, efficiency and with great care carrying just the right attitude of going to war. None needed to teach him what “war footing” really meant.

Soon, the best pieces of equipment and sub systems were purchased and erected. Time flew past quickly. In no time the modern cement plant was set up. His bosses were extremely happy with the good job done and awarded the Colonel a good bonus and a promotion for completing the project much before time and within budget. Everyone was happy and the plant began operating much before the planned starting date. It was key to capturing the untapped market before others got in.

But very soon a problem emerged. The plant was unable to produce the designed capacity at all. They kept trying harder and harder but the plant refused to change its behaviour. They coaxed people to work smarter and come up with good ideas. Nothing happened. They called in experts. The experts took their fees but the system refused to listen to them. They started training people to no good effect. Then they brought more of the best people to leadership positions. But they also could not make the desired change. People were sacked. New blood was inducted. The system did not budge an inch.

In addition to this another problem surfaced. The plant suffered innumerable breakdowns. One after the other. People were busy fixing things up as soon as things failed. And they kept doing this for years.

12 years passed. The fate of the plant was sealed. Or so it seemed. People were blamed and they were demoralized. The President of the plant was sacked. New leaders took over. A time came when people stopped talking about this plant about which they were so proud of even a few years back. People fought. Blamed each other. Worked hard. And prayed often. But got sacked.

What was happening? What went wrong?

For example, they had the best kiln. Now this best kiln retained more heat than other kilns and therefore was energy efficient and reliable. It meant that the kiln lost less energy and most of it was used to form the clinker. That was good news. Then what was the bad news…?

The clinker that came out of the kiln went over a ‘cooler’ whose function was to cool the clinker. Now this cooler was not designed to match the performance of this kiln or in other words the cooler was not designed to handle the temperature of the clinker that came out this kiln. So by the time the clinker passed over the cooler it did not cool sufficiently enough. After the clinker passed the cooler it entered the hammer crusher. With more than the expected temperature of the ‘cooled’ clinker the hammer crushers performed badly. This was because the hammers wore out in no time owing to the ‘hot’ clinker. They were not designed to handle these ‘hot’ clinkers. The clinkers were still hot enough after being broken into smaller pieces. Now the broken clinker travelled over a rubber belt conveyor (RBC) to the silo for temporary storage. The RBC wasn’t designed to handle the extra temperature and the rougher edges of the clinkers (produced by the bad performance of the crusher). So they often went down necessitating frequent maintenance and replacement and stoppage of the entire system.

Since the production pressures were up the clinker did not stay in the silo for a long time (that also caused defects in the silo) the clinker was taken out in relatively hot condition to be fed to the cement mill. And surely there too, it produced frequent problems. The ripples of the systemic problem was felt up to the bag house (pollution control mechanism). In fact it was everywhere and the plant looked so dirty and dusty that people often did not like to work in such places.

So, in short, every part of the system got affected and strange system behaviours abounded in plenty (emergence). Such emergence inhibited production and the plant could never run as desired. Everyone was busy looking at the parts of the system and trying to improve the parts and make them very efficient. And as expected it never worked. The Elephant refused to dance.

Till a time came when a very talented engineer was placed as the head of the plant. He kept looking at the system for days and started to understand the ‘strong’ relationships between the different parts that caused the problems. He then systemically tackled the issue with lot of patience and right motivation. He started changing, modifying and replacing the parts of the system as needed with the eye to match them well and put them on sync. His focus was not on purchasing the best things or the best parts. He simply went on matching one part to the other so that they can “dance in harmony.”

And the plant started performing extremely well. It started winning prizes for best productivity, least energy consumption, best quality, etc. People were again proud and happy to work. The corporate management was so pleased with the sudden change in performance that they decided to expand the capacity of the plant by putting up a new system along with a new limestone mine.

From then onwards there was no looking back for this plant. Oops! The “Elephant.”

The Elephant continues to waltz merrily.

State a Problem in Simplest Terms

The other day, a long-term client of mine called me up to see a problem of theirs. Since it is a public sector organization they soon sent me a RFP (request for proposal) over email with a fairly detailed SOW (Scope of Work).

In the SOW, they mentioned all that needs to be done, almost breaking down each step. In short, they were proposing a detailed method to solve their problem.

When they followed me up over phone, I said, “With such a detailed methodology in place, why would you ever need me?”

Sensing that they did not get it, I elaborated, “Does it mean if you just have the results of those steps that you have listed out you get to the answer you are looking for? Do you think that such detailed investigations, which you have already carried out earlier, would inflate costs without getting anywhere close to the solution?”

Fortunately, they quickly realized the gap. They asked me, “What should we do then?”

I replied, “State your problem in its most basic and simplest terms. Complex, nagging problems can’t be neatly defined. Instead, you could just state your concern about the problem. That would trigger our collective minds to flow easily to reach a solution. For example, you could state that you are suffering from a headache every evening.”

“O.K.” they said, “Our issue is that we are responding as per prescribed textbook rules to solve this problem and the problem seems to be temporarily fixed but it resurfaces after some time.”

“Just state that. And then we follow the cues to get to a working hypothesis, a working methodology to test out the hypothesis, collect data, arrange and interpret the data, collectively understand the issue with the simplest theories that fit the facts of the problem, formulate practical actions, carry out those to test our hypothesis and learn more to eliminate the problem for good.”

In the next fifteen minutes they sent the revised RFP, stating their concern.

By stating a problem in its basic and simplest terms we allow our minds to pay attention to flow effortlessly towards a solution.

That is what is needed when we tackle complex problems – problems for which answers are not available in the books or can’t be googled.

Developing Non-linear Thinking Skills

We know while comprehending complexity, linear logic fails. That appears to the most important reason as to why most people find it difficult to understand complex situations or grapple with complex problems.

With simple linear logic, principles come first and deductions follow. Hence the process may be described as:

Observe -> Model the observations based on relevant domain theory -> apply Principles/mathematics -> Deduction

Fair to say that this standard approach, based on linear logic, is used in science and engineering to solve linear problems. Since this is an efficient way of thinking it dominates our educational, professional and social lives.

But when it comes to solving non-linear complex problems (unfortunately most life problems are non-linear) application of linear logic fails. Instead what is needed is the development of non-linear thinking skills.

In fact, non-linear thinking style is a necessary skill with the larger theoretical framework of digital literacy through multiple format known as transliteracy through transmedia learning environment.

Nonlinear thinking styles are defined as using intuition, insight, creativity and emotions when comprehending and communicating information (Vance, Groves, Paik and Kindler, 2007)

But how to develop non-linear thinking skills?

I would give below a 3 step approach, one of the many approaches I developed for the specific purpose of developing non-linear thinking skills of my adult professional students. This specific technique is christened as the Fugue technique.

1. Think in terms of fugue. In a fugue, all the notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale. Compressing everything into one single melodic scale is analogous to modelling a phenomenon or behaviour based on a high level of abstraction, which is the dominant characteristic of linear thinking style. Make this clear to the participating group. It would relieve them of the unnecessary stress of finding the “one right answer” or “one right approach” to a complex problem.

2. Bring people together to tackle a complex problem. Make sure that the participants are familiar with the problem. This means that complex problems are to be selected from the familiar working environment of the participants or problems the participants have grappled with but failed to find a solution.

Putting a number of people together gives us a big advantage. Different people see the same problem in different ways. It would depend on their specific strengths and mental makeup, tendency and practice. Some find some parts of the problem easy to see and understand, which others might find too difficult to even notice. Each member of the group is then encouraged to focus on some parts of the problem that comes easily to them so as to come up with their own unique perspectives and understanding.

Before allowing people to jump in, preferably use different media to present a problem — narrative, story telling, printed material, videos, pictures, data, internet references etc.

3. Invite the group to plunge directly into the midst of things and follow the temporal order created by the thoughts of the different group members. Build upon each others thoughts. Never mind if we get different strings of thoughts to build different lines of thinking, which is the most desired output. Encourage all forms of communication — dialogs, debates, discussions, collaboration, negotiation, etc. Be patient with the flow of time. Activities might show sudden bursts of energy at various points of time. Allow people to express their thoughts through different media – verbal, slide shows, discussions, drawings, doodles, story telling, narratives/presentations, logical interpretation through principles, etc. It is expected that each member communicates in his/her preferred style of communication.

Link the different strings of thoughts or different perspectives to make a collective but coherent understanding of a complex problem without attempting to put them into “one melodic scale.” It means that it is not necessary to align the different perspectives into one linear path. Multiple paths are encouraged. Expecting multiple solutions would be the norm. The output measured against time is exponential when compared to linear approach. It helps in increasing both depth and width of learning. In Nemetic terms the resultant ecology is known as nemePlx or nPx

When a group performs this exercise on many live problems over a span of few days (a four-day long session appears to be just enough), it propels the students to develop their non-linear thinking skills. It also develops their transliteracy skills (a non-linear thinking skill) immersed in transmedia learning environment.

Note:

1. This Fugue technique has been extensively used for Power Plant professionals solving their complex problems.

2. The author is of the opinion that non-linear thinking skills cannot be taught in any explicit manner.

References:

!. Digital Literacy: A Demand for Nonlinear Thinking Styles Mark Osterman, Thomas G. Reio, Jr., and M. O. Thirunarayanan Florida International University, USA http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=sferc

2. Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn Davidson, C., (2011). New York, NY: Penguin

The Role of Intuition in High Performance

Garry Kasparov was the world’s top chess player for twenty years. Later he became a mentor to young players.

He has this to say about computer assisted learning:

“Everybody has access to the same computers. So I think the brute force of calculation isn’t enough – human intuition is an integral part of successful decision making too. Young players need to hear the greats of the past explain the nature of the game, the rationale of the openings, the ideas behind the moves. They can’t learn by just looking at the screen.”  [Ref: Life’s Work | Harvard Business Review South Asia | April 2015 | page 104]

I completely agree with him. While coaching or mentoring engineers and engineering managers I have seen serious mistakes being made while taking decisions based on established rules. The chance of making such mistakes increases while tackling complex situations and problems.

This is because solving complex problems and taking the right decisions in complex situations needs both reason and intuition. These combine to form right contextual knowledge of a complex situation. Worthwhile to remember that reason forms rules based on existing knowledge, which are, so to say, “Google able”. Whereas, intuition creates new knowledge by making unusual connections, which is commonly known as “out of the box thinking” or “creative thinking.”

Computer aided learning might help develop reason. But how do we develop intuition?

Kasparov offers advice on how to develop intuition.

What might be the other ways, if any?

Leadership Organizational Change & Complexity

Following is a splendid piece of insight coming from my friend and colleague, Michael Josefowicz, on honing leadership skills in a complex environment.

Quote

For economic development, entrepreneurs and organisational change it’s all the same.

1. Create leaders.
Make them believe they can manage complexity by showing them they can.

2. Create high performance teams.
One person always has a limited view. Often right, sometimes very wrong. Without a high performance team in place that can disagree within a context of trust the chances of getting it very wrong increase radically.

3. Choose a problem that is both solvable and worth solving. Focus on the problem and the constraints of time and money. Leadership and high performance team practice can be learned with any problem.

After that it’s all simple and self sustaining.

Unquote

What is most interesting is the direct relationship between leadership skills and problem solving. It would involve developing a wide range of human skills to operate at the level of “unconscious competence” in a complex environment.