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Week of 22 March 2021: Overdependence
"As the car moved, an air whistle screeched. In a split second a diesel locomotive was bearing down." From Popular Science, February 1960. Illustration by Ray Quigley

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From July 1925 to December 1970, Popular Science Monthly, a familiar magazine here in the US, ran a feature called Gus Wilson's Model Garage. The typical story was an automobile owner who came to the garage with a vexing car problem. Gus, through his experience, wit and intuition, could figure out the problem and put the driver back on the road, problem solved.

In our pulp and paper mills today, perhaps we need more Gus's.

With Industry 4.0, of which I am an avid enthusiast, we are attempting to sensor everything to death, with the intent of getting ahead of all our problems with sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and warning systems. This is all well and good, but let's not do this to the sacrifice of real training and experience in our maintenance ranks. Someday, and perhaps it is not too far away, artificial intelligence will have all the answers we need, but that time has not come yet.

I smile when I walk through a mill and see an old-timer with a substantial wooden stick, walking from motor to motor, placing one end of the stick on the motor and the other end next to the side of their head. This is a mechanic that has the experience and, if allowed to make these rounds regularly, likely can find a failing bearing as fast as the fanciest sensors and the best AI we have today.

But the rest of the story, the headline of this column is this. Don't think that sensors and AI are going to completely replace the experienced mechanic, electrician or (reread last week's column) IT professional. These modern tools can monitor and inform us of pending conditions and suggest solutions, but likely not make the leap from a tactical contemporary solution to a mid-distant strategic one. That still takes an experienced and trained human.

These modern tools will most certainly not make the leap that Gus did in the accompanying illustration, a leap that for a paper machine might mean quick action avoiding a press section wreck.

Yes, mill manager, you need to continue a program of hiring qualified maintenance personal, and continually training them...and then treat them well so the competition does not steal them.

For safety this week, on more than one occasion I have seen a skilled operator or maintenance person take immediate action, thus avoiding making a potentially devastating development into a human or equipment tragedy.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

Maintenance Month Platinum Sponsor: RMR Mechanical: We perform as planned! Visit us at


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