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Problem Solving?

by Dom Ruggeri

May 2005:

In the late eighties I was working for a major formulating house.  As always the very difficult projects seemed to get placed on my bench - of course I took this as a compliment.  I was asked to formulate a product based on amide chemistry.  Now we know amides are good co emulsifiers, good corrosion preventatives, and at times provide good tramp oil rejection.  With all these good points they have one serious drawback - they can foam like the dickens.  Knowing this, why anyone would want to use these materials as a lubricant was beyond me, but someone did and I had to make it work.

I did manage to come up with a viable candidate formulation.  It looked good in all the ASTM tests, but without actual machine data the sales force claimed they could not get a field trial.  There was a tool manufacturer in central Ohio with a machine shop/laboratory dedicated to testing coolants.  For a fee they would test any coolant you brought in, at the exact concentration you specified and the exact operations you wanted.  Further they would give you a report outlining how well your coolant performed in their test stands.  This was the closest one could get to an actual field trial.  When I arrived at the test site I was treated as an honored guest and given the grand tour while my fluid was prepped for the trial.  Everything went well - the foam was under control, the finish was well within spec, everything looked great.  As lunchtime approached I was invited out with their senior management.  Of course I accepted.  As we chatted, we began to discuss tools and metalworking fluids.  One of the gentleman with us made the comment that whenever something went wrong in a production shop the first thing they blamed was the tool.  I almost choked.  "Really?", I answered.  "Sure.", he replied.  He asked if I saw something different.  When I mentioned that it was our perception that the first thing they blamed was the coolant, he bristled at my answer.

Well I dare say my foot did not taste real good at that moment, and it was deep in my throat.  I quickly responded that we were both right.  Perhaps it is that whenever a customer has a problem they call in as many suppliers as possible to solve the problem.  In that way, they get the best of all perspectives and problem solving skills.  The gentleman beamed and replied, "Perhaps you're right - I never looked at it that way."  After lunch, my host informed me that my closing comments were a good save.

Anyone on the line in the metalworking business must have good problem solving skills.  However, in the heat of a coolant problem or a plant shutdown, anyone can lose focus, or worse, lose an account.  So here are a few tips that have served me well in my years of troubleshooting.

1.  Focus and Listen. Too often a really good chemist goes into an account with many preconceived ideas of how they are going to solve this customer’s problem, only to find that the cause of the problem described by the salesman is questionable, at best.

Focus and observe what is happening with the coolant and where it is happening.  Many times this can lead to a quick solution.

Listen to what the shop employees are saying.  Some of it may be just harmless complaining, but sometimes it is not.  For example, I was in a facility where silicon wafers were sliced.  Now a man called "Lefty" was complaining from here to high heaven.  I was convinced the test would fail.  Not so.  Lefty would bad mouth Santa Clause on Christmas Day.  Two other operators were not saying a word except that all was well.  Those two never complaind - Lefty always complained.  If the operators that do not complain are suddenly complaining, then the problem may be more serious than you thought.  Listen and question.

2.  Check the Coolant. Most shops will have data taken in accordance with a program they have in place.  This is a good thing and will make your job easier.  But you know how your material looks and how the tests should go.  It may be necessary to rerun the concentration using two or three different methods.  Use one or two the account does not use.  This different test may confirm what is causing the problem.  For example a concentration by alkalinity may show everything is in line, but if the coolant emulsion should be clear and it is milky, a concentration by acid split could reveal a hydraulic oil leak.

3.  Reason Through the Problem. The easiest thing in the world is to get caught up in the heat of a problem.  Don’t think "is the coolant causing the problem, or something else?".  For example, a customer reports that his tool life has dropped three weeks after changing to your product.  Why?
A.  Have they switched to harder metal parts?  This change will show a decrease in tool life and the floor engineer may not always know the change was made.
B.  Have they changed Insert suppliers?  Again the floor engineer may not know this.

Another example is that the coolant is foaming:
A.  Is the coolant foaming on the dirty side of the system or on the clean side of the system?
B.  Is the foam in one machine or all of the machines?  You would be amazed how many times I have heard of a foam problem where only one machine out of fifty is foaming and the engineer blames the coolant.

If you follow these suggestions you will always be on top of any coolant issue.

May 16 through 19 is the STLE Annual meeting.  As always, I will be at the Crystal, Inc-PMC Booth (#57).  Please feel free to stop by and say hi.  I am looking forward to meeting and chatting with all my readers.  But we may try to sell you some antifoam.

As always, should you have any questions please feel free to e-mail me in care of the magazine.  Till next month.

Good Luck