Spring Essentials – Developing the Spring Makers of the Future

… requires a commitment to train and the willingness to learn

I was going to discuss spring index this time, but the theme of this issue prompted me to write something different. It’s been my pleasure over the last 15 years to teach practical spring theory to dozens of people, including seminars to customers. The spring makers of the future don’t just happen. It requires training and a consistent message of improvement.

Most importantly, it requires a commitment from the management to display their interest with continued support of any organized education about their product and its manufacture. We need to be sure the experienced players learn to share their knowledge and legacy of experience to another generation. Springs are an engineered product, and training should include the knowledge of the nuts and bolts of coiling, as well as a practical understanding of what springs are and how they function. Mutual understanding also helps lessen the ambiguity between management and production by creating a common knowledge of what the business is all about.

One of my favorite (or maybe just irritating) responses to questions on spring engineering is, “Don’t make this as hard as it seems.” Being a product of a manufacturing environment, I know how intimidating mathematics and engineering can be.

Many engineers have a tendency to complicate an issue, not simplify it. The result is shop floor associates leaving your desk more confused than before they asked the question. Keep in mind that engineers are trained to be “technical” and often have difficulty speaking to an audience that requires a disassembled explanation. Sometimes, they get so accustomed to working formulas, they forget from whence the thing came in the  first place or simply do not take the time to break it down. The simpler, and equally frustrating, response engineers use is, “Don’t worry about it; you wouldn’t understand it anyway.” That is a maligned assumption; especially if people haven’t been trained to understand the product they create.
The up side to the dilemma is that many people hate “math” with a literal passion and despise even the mention of the word. An engineer’s stock and trade is math. Engineers deal with it every day and do not find it appalling or a nuisance. What I have found over the years of training operators is that just about everyone understands basic arithmetic functions – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. If you understand those four actions, you can understand spring mathematics. Unfortunately, engineers tend not to explain it that way. Consequently, people enter the training room already convinced they will fail, horribly.

I mention this because it seems one of the more difficult aspects of manufacturing life is the concept of training. Training takes attention, thought and some bit of willingness to accept an idea that has been foreign. It also takes a teacher that has the patience to understand that people do not spend much time, if any, back in school. Their school is usually on the job training from a more experienced operator – the “old pro.” When I got into engineering, I was surprised to find that a lot of the math I was using had been taught to me in junior high school. I also found that many engineers would make the concepts cryptic and mysterious to protect their position in the organization. The idea of shop employees being able to calculate a Rate or a coil change based on a sample seems to bubble up the “ole” insecurity. I understand the reasons for such paranoia but disagree with the detrimental results.

The best human analogy I can use is my time learning to swim when I was young. At the age of 14 or so, I still couldn’t swim. I even faked my way through swim class in P.E. I wasn’t afraid of water as long as it wasn’t over my head. One person tried to teach me by throwing me in and calling me a sissy (only he didn’t use the word “sissy”), but that didn’t work. That experience didn’t motivate me at all.

One day, one of my brothers took me to a beach and decided he would teach me to swim. The very first thing he said was, “Now, watch me … I’ll be able to float.” He took a big breath, stuck his head under the water, tucked himself into a rolled-up position with his head to his knees and just floated around like a bobber. Nobody had ever told me humans could float.

Then he told me to just put my head under the water with him and open my eyes. He said I would see his face, and he was right. In the space of about five minutes, the mysterious concept of swimming unraveled, and I lived in the water, summer after summer, becoming a better swimmer than I had ever imagined. All because one person took the time to prove he knew what he was talking about and then showed me, slowly and patiently, how to do it myself. The key to his success was not solely his approach, however; it also was because I really wanted to know how to swim.

We all tend, by nature, to be judgmental of other people. But let’s give each other a chance and see what we can learn. Win-win situations are out there, but you have to be willing to give it a shot and accept just the smallest amount of change. Teachers are only as good as the students they teach. It’s a two-way street. And when it clicks, everybody wins.