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Week of 13 September 2021: Video Games and Paper Machine Operation

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I was assistant project manager in the engineering department at a mill back in the early 1980's. I have referenced this experience a number of times in this column over the years.

One of the upgrades we made at the time was to go from pneumatic controls to digital computer control. This means that the machine, which only a few days ago was operated from benchboard on the floor was now operated from a control room. Now a mere month later, the bench boards are gone. Keep in mind, the crews on this machine had been running it from benchboards for about 14 years. Previously, when a gage had a reading they were not familiar with, they pulled the channel locks from their pocket and gave it a gentle tap.

Likely at home, they had no one with a keyboard or computer--yet. That generation was in their homes but in diapers. All of a sudden, the operators were in an air-conditioned control room and were flying blind. There were no simulators in those days for them to practice with ahead of time. They had had training, but it wasn't even PowerPoint slides--these had not been invented yet. It was a struggle for them.

In the engineering department we had one IBM PC in a lockable cart on wheels that we rolled from office to office if someone had a problem they thought merited using the computer. Of course, you often needed to write your own programs in BASIC. Little off-the-shelf software was available.

Fast forward to today and those aforementioned kids in diapers have had kids of their own, and they are sitting in your control rooms now. Except, unlike their grandparents who likely grew up working on cars or, if farm kids, working on farm machinery, today's operators often have no experience with mechanical things. They don't know a crescent wrench from a crescent roll.

You walk in their control room and ask them where the fan pump is and they flick through three screens faster than you can read this and point their cursor to a scroll shaped line drawing and say, "Right there!" Ask them if it is running and they look, notice it is green (depending on your protocols, it might be red in your mill) and they say "Yes!"

You try once again, and say, "I mean WHERE IS THE FAN PUMP?" And they stare at you blankly.

Operational problems begin at home. The context of your operators' informal background plays a large part in where you need to take your training. Like the boot camp scene in "Stripes" (now, a very old movie), a good trainer will talk to their people and gain an understanding of their perspective at the beginning of their time with you. If you start with your own assumptions, chances are you are wrong and will start your training at the wrong place.

Next week, we will talk about human/machine interface and how it fits into modern management. In the meantime, take the "kids" who are working with you and put them through vigorous safety training. Likely, they are used to looking at screens where, if they want to get to another level, they jump off the cliff and land on their feet. Not exactly what happens in real life, and it is your job to explain that to them.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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