Gear Origins: Graham Penning

BGA Primary Gears Workshop (courtesy of the BGA).

For the last few years I have delivered a gear foundation course to both young and experienced engineers wanting to understand gear technology, and I always start the day by saying:

“In 1973 I moved to Huddersfield after getting a job as a young engineer with David Brown Gear Industries thinking that, after two years, I will move on knowing everything about gears. Well here I am over forty-five years later, still learning something new about gears every week. So, while today I will have no problem introducing all the basics of gears, you will never know everything about gears. That is the joy of gears; they embrace so many technologies that there is always an opportunity to learn something new, and it will be inevitable that you will meet and work with many different engineering experts — most of whom don’t realize how skilled they are!”

Reading any issue of Gear Technology magazine only confirms this point where I always find something new written by a specialist in one aspect of our industry.

How did this great journey into the world of gearing start?

Graham Penning, chairman of the British Gear Association (BGA).

Well, as a child I was always interested in how things work, an interest that was fueled by the toys we played with, e.g. — construction and building kits, electric train sets, chemistry sets and even toy steam engines fueled by methylated spirit burners. I was not just interested in how things worked, but also what you could do with them. It was a different world then; even children’s comics had cutaway drawings of locomotives, ships, airplanes and their engines, just to show how things worked. I was particularly fascinated with my clockwork racing car that had a differential gear arrangement on the rear axle. While my dad explained why it was needed, I couldn’t figure out how it worked, forever playing with it holding one wheel then turning and holding the other. It was only many years later, when analyzing a differential gearbox, that it all become clear.

Of course, this interest in how things work meant that at school I enjoyed math and the sciences, and was fortunate to have enthusiastic teachers who had a passion for their subjects.  In the sixth form I focused on Math, Physics and Chemistry, making me ideally placed to study engineering in further education. However, I was advised that if I studied and qualified in Mechanical Engineering, it would open many doors and opportunities for my future career. Thankfully I took that advice and chose to go to college to study mechanical engineering on a “Thin Sandwich” course; i.e. — six months at college, six months in industry — a course that suited me perfectly. College gave the theory and industry not only provided the practical application of what we were taught but, perhaps more importantly, developed the people skills required to work in industry. After placements at a coal-fired power station, then a steel works, my final period was at Dorman Diesels where I worked in the analysis section of the design office. Not only did I stress analysis of the rotating components — shafts, couplings, keyways etc. — but also completed torsional vibration analysis of the systems where the engines were to be used. Collecting all the stiffnesses and inertias of the system components, I used a slide rule and also a mechanical calculator to complete Holzer tabulations to determine the natural frequencies of the system and then ensure that they didn’t coincide with the — not insignificant — forcing terms from the engine and cause damaging resonant conditions in service. If necessary, I would change coupling stiffnesses and inertias to tune and optimize the system performance. I didn’t realize at the time how opportune this experience would turn out to be.

After graduating, the opportunity for a stress engineer at David Brown came up. At that time David Brown made Aston Martin Cars, David Brown Tractors, David Brown Pumps and owned the Vosper Thorneycroft shipyard. However, the core business was gearing — making every type of gear and gearbox up to 200 tons in weight. Supported by their own foundries, steel fabricators, tool makers and machine makers, with plants and factories across the globe, it was an engineering enterprise and with lots of opportunities.

I realized how good it would be to get a start in such a large business, so I applied for the job with great hope and trepidation, and was invited for an interview. David Brown had their own graduate training scheme, with many highly qualified engineers. The Huddersfield head office had a research department with over 70 engineers and the analysis department, where the vacancy was, had 25 engineers — all better qualified than me. However, the interview went really well; it became clear that the stress analysis I had done at Dorman Diesels was exactly what I would be expected to do, and it seemed I was well-suited to the job. When I talked about torsional vibrations, I had to explain about Holzer tabulations, something the head of engineering knew nothing about but was impressed when I explained in detail about how they worked. He was even more impressed when I explained that I had analyzed David Brown gear-type couplings, checking their strength and using their inertia figures in my calculations. Call it luck or serendipity, but everything went well in the interview and it was capped by the last question about pastimes, and I said I read a lot of science fiction. The engineering head asked about the last book I had read. I explained that it was about predicting the future, an example being how fast man could travel. The principal was that if you plotted man’s maximum speed through time you would go from walking, running, horse riding, skiing, railway engines, cars and propeller aircraft; the graph would have predicted that man would break the sound barrier in the 1940s and the jet engine or something similar would have to be invented! This caused a heated discussion with the engineering head, even plotting his own graph of man’s speed against time, and while he was quite enthralled with the idea, he eventually said that I had to understand that all growth graphs may collapse. I defended the book, and even if they collapsed it would only make you more aware of likely developments. That was the key — not only remembering the book but holding my own in the subsequent debate. The interview was on Christmas Eve and the job offer arrived straight after Christmas, and I started my gear adventure in the first week in January 1973.

And that is how, purely by chance, my journey started from schoolboy to student to stress engineer, section leader, manager and director that has seen me travel all over the world to factories, sugar mills, ships, coal mines and cement mills; meeting and working with wonderful engineers — all experts and specialists in the world of gearing — every day learning something new. In hindsight it is clear to me that this continued learning has been the key to any success I have had.

Over the latter part of my career I have been able to pay some of this learning back. Perhaps one of my most useful achievements was the opportunity to create the David Brown Gear Academy. This initiative by David Brown has enrolled and taught over 1,000 students in all aspects of gear technology. A training program it offers to both its own employees and freely to its customers, knowing that there is no downside in their gearbox customers and users being skilled in gear technology — a great and unique industry initiative from David Brown.

As chairman of the British Gear Association (BGA), I am also proud of the knowledge transfer program we deliver that provides specialist gear training to help secure and enhance the mechanical power transmission industry. Furthermore, the BGA also has a remit to ensure the future of our industry, and in accordance with this responsibility we have developed a primary gears workshop and kit supporting the UK National Curriculum for Science. This is particularly important, as it has been found that children make career-limiting choices early in their school careers and arrive at secondary schools having already decided that Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects are not for them!

The program the BGA supports supplies the workshop kit and instructions to engineers from industry to visit primary schools and run sessions where they make gear trains and models with the children. These workshops are designed to engage with the children and show the types of careers STEM subjects can provide and perhaps make their own journey into the wonderful world of gears.

About the Author:

Graham Penning, OBE Hon DSc CEng FIMechE FRSA: Following 45 years of significant industrial experience, Graham Penning is now semi-retired and undertaking various high-level consulting and voluntary roles in the gearing industry and wider engineering community. His current activities being Chairman of the British Gear Association, Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Director of Contact Gearing Limited — an independent consultancy, training and engineering services company.

About Charles D. Schultz 590 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply