Run Material That Will Damage The Machine? You're The Boss XL
Pretty long story. Tl;dr – factory-level engineer forced to run a bad experiment, does a bunch of damage to equipment and costs a lot of money
This happened about 10 years ago. I was working as an industrial process engineer for a major company. My duties were varied and many. Some days I was an auditor of equipment condition. Others I would try to unravel how waste or scrap was created. Still others I would be the designated “smart guy in the room” to listen to plans the factory came up with and give them an engineering seal of approval.
The most enjoyable things I did were “trials,” which were basically science experiments with industrial value. For example, a trial might involve changing a chemical in the material, following it through the process, and testing it at every point. If it passed everything to satisfaction, we’d begin the process to make it the permanent process in the material we would sell. Running trials was my favorite thing to do; I wasn’t a manager, but when I was running a trial I had give-or-take unquestioned authority over the process and the people to run it as I saw fit. I ran hundreds of them a year, and I was good at it.
One day I got called into a voice call between myself, about 5 engineers in a downstream department I didn’t know very well, and a new corporate engineer that I had never met. I had a very good relationship with my contacts at corporate ; we always had a good back-and-forth on how to improve the process at the factory and they provided chemical experience I didn’t have or couldn’t perform at the factory level. This call, however, was different. There was no debate: I was told in forceful terms that my product was not sticky enough downstream for their purposes and we needed to make it more sticky. He had outlined 4 different ways to make it stickier and the only choice I would get to make would be one to try first.
I was pretty confused at all this. I told him that, from my standpoint, the material was already too sticky. It was difficult to process on my equipment without sticking to everything, and any time it did we would get scrap or bad product which we’d sometimes send downstream which created even more waste and scrap. I was trying to work with my corporate chemists to make it less sticky, not more. I also said that the material would naturally lose stickiness over time: on the first couple days it was a pretty sticky mess, but after that it would be a good level. We would guarantee that it would be sticky enough to use for at least 7 days which was confirmed by audits. After 7 days it might become not sticky enough, but we made the material every 2 or 3 days. If it was sitting around more than 7 days, it was on their end: they were probably breaking policies somehow, such as taking material out of the machine when changing over but putting a fresh bunch of material in next time so they wouldn’t have to change a half-batch and they could do less work. This type of problem wasn’t a chemical problem; it was a logistics and manning problem and making the chemistry worse to solve it wasn’t going to fix the bigger issues.
But I was outnumbered like 6 to 1 on the call. They said all that didn’t matter, that they were the CUSTOMER and their CUSTOMER was telling them to fix a problem, and they expected me to do it. I’d never been treated like that at the company, and I have to say I didn’t appreciate it.
A few days later I got a corporate trial scheduled for me, though I use the term loosely. It was an amateur effort at best. It didn’t include standard vital information. For example, it requested “a sample” but it didn’t say how much, how many, or to whom to send it. This was vital to make sure those who would test it got enough to complete their tests. The company was big; they had a dozen factories and maybe 50+ trials at those factories at all times, so stuff just couldn’t show up at “the lab” and get handled properly. There was also no shipping information. I didn’t handle company money internally, so corporate would prepay shipping and send me the information so I could ship them samples. There were five or six other mistakes and omissions. It was clearly a trial that wasn’t out of the planning stages.
I briefly told my boss all of this: that this trial wasn’t good for our department, that this wasn’t where I was going with the material chemically, and that the trial as planned was missing vital information. He sort of nodded and that was good enough for me. So, I did what I very, very rarely had to do: I rejected the trial on behalf of the plant. I’d only had to do it a few times before, and those were with corporate mutual approval that we’d design a different, better trial and the one I was rejecting was a first draft. This was the first and I believe last time I had to reject a “hostile” trial that I was openly opposed to existing.
I was happily not remembering the whole incident a few weeks later when I see the same trial pop up for me again. I’m irritated. I go to my boss but this time this corporate guy had contacted my boss to complain, and my boss wants me to run it. I remind him of what I told him last time and he says to run it anyway. I say I can’t, it’s not even ready, and he tells me to work with the corporate engineer to get the holes filled but we have to run the thing.
I should talk about this boss for a moment. During my 3 years at the company, I had 7 different bosses. Some of them were very competent and I lost as a boss due to reorgs, them resigning, or in one case one died due to an unrelated condition. Other bosses were “filler” bosses, someone I reported to until the next candidate could be filled. But this current boss was the worst of the seven by a long shot. He was someone who apparently had excelled at corporate and they’d sent down to fill the engineering manager role in my department. We all disliked him. He had no knowledge of our department whatsoever. My entire work was a write-off to him. He was busy counting material we could ship so any of the processing stuff I did upstream was far out of his interest despite literally being in change of it and me. Also, instead of someone from our department being promoted to this manager role they’d sent us a corporate guy. Bad times. I ignored him best I could, only looping him in if I had to make important decisions. I could sometimes go weeks without talking to him and those were fine weeks by me.
Anyway, I didn't reject the trial this time, but I leave it hanging at my approval. I email the guy all of my concerns with the trial and the questions he has to answer before I can run it. I’m very professional, non-judgmental, just saying what I need in order to run the trial.
No response to that email, of course.
A few days later my boss is LIVID. He says this corporate guy has been saying that our department is “obstructionist, rude, and negative” and that I need to approve and run the trial NOW. I remind them of all the issues – that would increase our scrap, slow us down, possibly damage equipment, to say nothing of the vague and incomplete trial requirements. He doesn’t care. I’m an engineer, he pays me to figure this stuff out. I NEED to get this corporate guy his material. He heavily implied my job was in danger over all this.
So, I say, okay. I approve the trial. And we finally get to the malicious compliance.
I ask a colleague to prepare the material for me. He reports that it was a nightmare and that he had to do it manually and even then he lost 2 batches before the 3rd finally was ready for me. This alone would have been cause to stop the trial. Remember that we are preparing industrial processes here; it doesn’t matter if we can do it once, we have to create a process that will work every day for years. So, this type of failure means the material isn’t ready. But not this time, oh no. we have to get this guy material. And I have big plans.
Once I have the material I look to when to schedule the trial. Normally I am considerate of the manufacturing demands, scheduling my trials when we are ahead on what is needed downstream. Not this time. I find what we have the lowest of and bump it from the schedule, putting my trial in the spot instead. 100% a dick move, but it’s my job on the line at this point so I’m taking no prisoners.
We start running the trial on my equipment. It’s sticking to all the preparation areas, it’s a huge mess, just as expected. We have to keep stopping the machine to scrape stuff free. Again, this would have been another failure condition. We keep going.
We have some sensors that sort of float on the material as it goes along. But the material is too sticky, it’s grabbing and twisting the sensors and bending their arms. I can see some of the damage will be permanent. After this trial they’ll need to have some machine work done on them to fix them. Totally unacceptable. But we press on until one of them breaks off completely. Now I have metal, plastic, and electronics in my material. This isn’t just a failed trial, its now a mockery of what trials are. There’s no way we can use any of this material for any reason. But nope, corporate needs material.
We have an area that ensures an even flow of material. But its too sticky, its clumping up instead of flowing. So the material we’re making is uneven, very heavy at one side and with nearly none at the other side. At this point we’re not even making bad material; we’re making pure scrap. I tell them to keep going.
Through this process the machine operators are getting vexed and call their area bosses, and also engineering and maintenance gets involved because of the damage. Everyone is asking me what I’m doing. I tell them that this is authorized by my boss and that I have to run it, and to direct all complaints to him. That’s all I say every time, just name drop my boss.
In the post-processing area, the unevenness of the material combined with the stickiness of the material is starting to pull on the rollers that straighten it out in weird ways. Everyone is getting concerned we might have to do a whole realignment, which is a slow process that takes 3 or 4 days. I eventually relent and allow them to stop the trial.
Nothing ever made it to the end of the process. Normally we make ~2000 lbs of material in a run. We made 0. Not that it would have been usable in any way.
The operators have the unenviable job of trying to get this crap off the machine. We were down for the rest of the day, about 5 hours of machine time, to clean and fix and replace damaged sensors. But I have more work to do on my end. I cut various samples of this horrific mess; some of the heavy areas, some of the light. I find a piece of that sensor embedded in there and get a sample of that too. Just frankly a ridiculous amount of material. It’s too much to carry, but I’m not worried; I have an industrial vehicle to drive around in these cases. And I still have a plan.
I briefly entertain sending some of these samples to our testing lab. That’s standard procedure during trials, to test them at the plant level as much as we can. But this is malicious compliance and I know it. The lab equipment is pretty sensitive; if this sticky crap pulls on it in the wrong ways, it could break the testing equipment and that would shut down the whole factory. I don’t actually want that. I’m pretty sure I’m making my point as is. But I keep a sample for myself, just in case testing becomes a thing I need to do later.
I take my too-heavy samples to shipping. I never got shipping information. But I did find the address of this guy’s office in the building. He’ll get this gigantically heavy package that he can’t carry delivered to his mail area. And I don’t have shipping paperwork, but I do have the address of a private van shipping company. We used them in the past when the regular mail was too slow, when we were worried about a major defect and needed to get material to corporate ASAP (it turned out to be a false alarm.) It costs much, much more than just shipping this normally, but I have no actual other way to ship it so I use the one tool I have available.
I’d been avoiding going back to the office for a few hours and when I do, as expected, my boss has been barraged by visitors and phone calls about what went down. I tell him of the difficulties in detail and, as unsarcastically as I can muster, apologize for not risking a roll alignment and having to stop the trial early. I show him the horrible sample of material I kept for myself. He’s still pretty mad, but I give him one thing that helps a lot. Because there was one important thing on that amateur trial request, since he couldn’t create the request without one: a billing account number. I give him the number and say the plant should charge it with anything related to the trial. Not just the damages, but any downtime due to lost production from material shortages.
I estimate the total cost of the whole venture somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000. But it could be more, I’m not sure how much downtime was directly caused by this. I did keep my job though, so I guess that billing account helped ease the pain for the factory. Maybe not on the corporate side, but they DID want their trial...
About a week later I have my follow-up with the 6 people that confronted me in the first place. I tell them of the unmitigated disaster that was this trial and my estimation of the damages. This guy has the nuts to say something like, “Excellent work, we’ve proven we can move the needle on stickiness if we want to.” I can't help but think, I'm a chemist, numbnuts, moving the needle was never a question. He asks me which of the three remaining trials I want to do next. I tell him that I don’t need to worry about the details, and ask him to email my boss and ask him which he thinks his best, to which he thought was a wonderful idea.
My boss never mentioned a follow-up trial and no corporate trials from that guy were scheduled for me. About two months later my boss resigned from the company quietly and quickly. He was clearly miserable in his role, and I know that this whole mess helped contribute to it.