The Lure of Nostalgia

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

I love old cars but have no desire to drive one on a daily basis.

The appeal of a powerful muscle car or winged 1950s convertible is understandable, but the hassles of ownership outweigh it for me. Sometimes it seems like half the content on cable TV is related to finding, restoring, and reselling old cars and other memorabilia. It is amazing how much some things are worth and how much people will pay to have them “restored.”

Perhaps my opinion is influenced by the cars I could afford as a young driver. There was no tricked out GTO in the driveway when I finally got my license. Instead, my father won a 1953 Pontiac straight-eight in a VFW Post card game. The 55,000 mile “creampuff” was valued at $25 and required a battery of equal cost to get it running.

A 17-year-old car with only 55,000 miles on it would be worth much more than $50 today — and this is at the heart of my opinion on old cars. Frankly, they were not very reliable, cost a lot to operate, lacked safety equipment, handled like farm wagons, and rusted while you watched.

It is easy at my age to remember just the excitement of having your own wheels and being able to go where you wanted. Deeper reflection brings the breakdowns, clouds of blue smoke, and the constant need for gas/oil/tires/exhaust pipes/shocks to mind. Maybe it was a different experience for other guys; in my working class high school the parking lot had plenty of oil spots. (I remember a friend having to put his always-at-the-ready roasting pan under his 1955 Chevy while he picked up his prom date, lest it leave a quart on her father’s pristine driveway.)

So I will confine my appreciation for old cars to watching TV shows and reading enthusiast magazines. For me, the good memories cannot be separated from the not-so-good ones. When guys say “They don’t make them like that anymore,” I for one say, “Thankfully.”

Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

There is a new commercial airing that shows flashbacks of a young girl enjoying a family road trip from the rear facing seat in their Volvo station wagon. While a familiar perch to we Baby Boomers — probably not so much to our post-minivan generations. But my kids used to squabble over who got the “way-back” in our 1991 Mercury Sable station wagon, so I’d guess the rearward perspective popularity extends — and ends — to those in their late 20s.

While many of my blog posts celebrate the past, I resist becoming a full-time curmudgeon. Yes, history and my experiences in the gear trade are important to me, and I hope you enjoy reading about my reflections. But the future is even more interesting, as we are all going to be spending the rest of our lives there.

And what a future it can be as advances in metallurgy, heat treating, and machining enable designers to create power transmission products with greater precision, higher efficiency, and longer service life. And even now, commercial software puts NASA-level stress analysis in the hands of even the smallest company.

But none of this can be successful without an appreciation and understanding of where the gear trade has come from. You can buy all the woodworking books you want; surround yourself with top-quality cabinet making equipment and lay in a big supply of exotic hardwoods. But your projects will be only expensive firewood if you haven’t developed your mechanical skills and design sense.

As a hitter doesn’t blame his bat when he strikes out, a craftsman doesn’t blame his tools for botching a job. We have no excuses for making poorly designed or roughly machined products. Learn what worked or didn’t work from studying prior art. Understand and apply emerging technology to improve on classic designs. We loved our 1991 Mercury, but wouldn’t want to drive one today. The same can be said for a good many classic power transmission products.

The Invisibles: People Who Keep Shops Running

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

I happened to catch an interview with author David Zwieg about his new book, The Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Workers (www.davidzwieg.com/writing) right after visiting one of my old employers. Zwieg’s appreciation for “the little people” who keep most organizations humming along matches my own. Chatting recently with some former co-workers about the daily challenges of keeping machines running, sorting out problems with customer drawings, and finding new customers made me miss the old routine.

Not that I want to go back to commuting through Chicago traffic, mind you. But there is something comfortable about dealing with issues you understand well and are confident you can resolve without upsetting work flow. For his book Mr. Zwieg interviewed people with important jobs that go unnoticed — unless there is a big mistake. Consider structural engineers: whoever hears about a structural engineer — unless a building or bridge collapses?

Most gear shops have at least a handful of go-to guys and gals who keep the parts flowing smoothly. They, too, go unnoticed unless the momentum stops or a question remains unanswered too long. Most of them prefer to stay out of the spotlight and live in fear of letting the team down. Or, as songwriter Mac McAnally so nicely phrased it in his 1970 ballad, “It’s My Job”:

It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that’s enough reason to go for me.
It’s my job to be better than the rest
and that makes the day for me.”

So let me thank the dozens of “invisibles” who have kept the places I worked running. Great things can happen when competent people put their skills together and don’t worry about being individual stars.

School’s Out for Summer?

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

June has always been a favorite month for me because it signaled the start of summer vacation. In the many years since I graduated high school, it is apparent that the academic calendar has shifted to allow for an earlier end to classes. Yet June remains forever imprinted on me.

An insightful reader of this blog recently noted that you never finish your gear education, and summer is just as good a time as any to refresh your memory on a neglected topic, or to become enthused again about an old one. This prompts me to wonder whether your company took my unsolicited — but well-intentioned — advice and brought in an intern or two for the summer months. If so, instead of merely giving them a book to (hopefully) read on gears, why not prepare a short class on the topic and present it to the interns — and, even better — interested employees as well?

You never really understand a topic until you try to teach it. Example: to comply with ISO continuous improvement/training requirements, I prepared classes on cost estimating; part processing; heat treating; gear geometry; gear inspection; and a few other topics. And I’m glad I did.

Not everyone was receptive to sitting in a class an hour a week for several weeks; but overall, I think the program was a success based upon the questions I got for months afterward. This demonstrated that they had not only attended and paid attention — but later had also thought about what they had learned.

It is difficult to know what level of knowledge is “needed” to accomplish a specific task, so for best results you might as well provide more information than is generally thought necessary. Sometimes just teaching the “how” of something and skipping the “why” leads to the erroneous conclusion that any drone could do the job at hand. In truth, modern shop and office environments need engaged and enlightened people working at every task.

The Error of Hiding Failures

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

The General Motors ignition switch fiasco remains in the headlines, having cost many lives, millions of dollars, and a number a careers. What seems to engineers as a relatively simple issue becomes very complicated in light of company politics, legal concerns, and accident settlements. As one colleague tersely put it: “Just tell people to stop hanging four pounds of junk on their key fob and the switches are just fine.”

The engineer in me wants to endorse this approach, but unfortunately the general public doesn’t see it so simply. We have a responsibility to anticipate misuse of our products and to do what we can to prevent misuse from harming people. This puts the engineer at odds with his employer’s need to limit liability and keep failures quiet.

We see this dynamic in action at AGMA technical committee meetings. A problem will come up in conversation and people will immediately start backpedaling on how they happen to be so well informed on it. It is an interesting bit of maneuvering — necessary for legal purposes but detrimental to solving the problem.

Closer to home, there are a number of ongoing issues bedeviling gear makers these days. One of them is grinding burn; despite claims to the contrary, gears occasionally get burned during tooth grinding. Instead of making a combined effort to identify the conditions that cause it and to develop methods of minimizing it, we pretend it only happens to “the other guy.”

A colleague has been trying to raise money for a test program on grinding burn, with an eye toward developing rework methods suitable for salvaging very expensive parts. Unfortunately he is not getting much support, because it is “the other guy’s” problem. Many potential funders are quite interested, however, in seeing his rework methods if and when they are developed. Without disclosure and evidence sharing, it is more difficult to solve problems.

Perhaps we need a South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” where companies can get indemnification for previously undisclosed technical failures.

Regrets, I Have a Few

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

Like many Baby Boomers, I have a strong attachment to the music of my youth. I don’t suppose many people under sixty remember folk singer Tom Rush, but his song “No Regrets” has been a favorite since I first heard it. Unfortunately, unlike Mr. Rush, I have plenty of regrets.

One of them is never having really learned to speak another language. I marvel at people who can seamlessly move from one language to another. My family apparently stopped speaking German when The Great War broke out. Prior to that conflict, Milwaukee had fourteen German newspapers. By the time it was over, only one survived. So intense was the anti-German campaign that even bakeries renamed their products.

I attempted to learn German while in middle school and college — to no avail. Sure, I can recite most of the first lesson, but once I’ve asked Louisa if she wants to go to the library I am completely lost. It doesn’t help that my hereditary tongue is so complicated. No less of an authority than Mark Twain noted:

“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.”

Still, it was embarrassing — the first time I visited Germany — for the passport clerk to consider my name and appearance and to begin instructing me in German. She displayed a mixture of horror and amusement when I replied, “Meine Deutsch is nicht seir gute.”

I mention this subject here as a continuation to previous posts on “failure.” All told, I am nowhere near 10,000 hours into my study of the German language, so perhaps I will lobby for a grade of “Incomplete.” Certain German words — such as schadenfreude and backpfeifengesicht — have a special appeal to me and I hope to visit the country again.

Until I gain a bit more fluency, however, I’ll share another of Mark Twain’s comments on the complicated language:

“How charmed I am when I overhear a German word which I understand!”

Is the 10,000 Hour “Rule” a Myth?

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

Malcomb Gladwell popularized the notion that 10,000 hours of repetition could make you a virtuoso in his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Since then this “10,000 Hour Rule” has been batted about like a ping pong ball in training, education, and sports circles. Gladwell based his claims on research by a Florida State University professor, Anders Ericsson. Ericsson has since distanced himself from the “rule” by saying it is a bit more complex than that.

Dr. Ericsson ought to know, having studied a large group of violin players for the original study. It isn’t just “mindless” repetition, he points out, but rather a disciplined pattern of increasingly difficult exercises plus desire plus talent plus many other things that makes a musician a virtuoso.

10,000 hours is 5 years of 40 hour weeks with two weeks off each year for vacation. About the amount of time needed to earn a Masters degree at an American university. Not that a Masters degree signals “mastering” any topic. In the sports world, some have claimed that 10,000 hours represents the total amount of practice and games needed to reach the professional ranks.

A typical apprenticeship is much less than 10,000 hours. Just defining a program in terms of hours seems insufficient to prepare one for a productive professional life. It matters what you do with those hours of training, and even more with what you do after you have “graduated.”

My career in gears has taken me many places and gotten me involved in many things. It would have been a much different “me” today had I stayed in one place and confined myself to one particular type of gear or gearbox. 10,000 hours can pass very quickly if you are doing something you enjoy; it is cruel and unusual punishment if you are required to do something you hate.

Among the saddest things I have witnessed are those who continue to do something that bores them because it pays well or they are too old to do what they’d really love to do. Life is too short to just go through the motions.

Failures Need Not Be Permanent

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Latest posts by Charles D. Schultz (see all)

The mailman delivered some used books to my house this week, so I expect to be blogging a bit about their content in the coming weeks. Two are by longtime favorite Henry Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke University. Dr. Petroski has been writing about design engineering for many years and was one of the first people I can recall to talk about “failure” in a positive way.

Our national debate on educational standards has broadened this “failure” debate to include schools, administrators, and teachers. No one dares call children or parents or grandparents failures, however, so the discussion can seem a little ideological (rather than logical) at times.

All of us were failures at something for varying lengths of time. We all fell down a lot before we could walk. It took forever for anyone but close family members to understand a word we spoke. Most of us managed to learn to ride a bike before the pain of crashing became too much to bear. A sizeable group of people have not learned to swim because early failures were just too terrifying.

Why are we so impatient with our children over the pace of their intellectual knowledge acquisition? Some children take longer than others to learn a sport; some never get the hang of it. What gets the superstar to that level of accomplishment is not a lucky draw in the genetic lottery — although that clearly helps. What succeeds above all is persistence, good coaching, and a passion to succeed at whatever that activity is.

These same things apply in your work/school life. If you want to master any subject or task, you need to stick with it and find a more accomplished person to coach you. In our trade that “coach” is often a well-thumbed reference book; I am extremely grateful for the “founding fathers” putting pencil to paper. Writing about gears or most other topics does not pay well in a monetary sense, so our canon of gear books is truly a blessing from the past.