14 March, 2015

The Repairman

Those of you in the auto/truck/equipment repair trades.  Have you noticed over recent years how as the old hands retire that there is a lack of "repairmen"?  I think it's safe to say every mechanic can point to, at least, one old hand and say "He was my mentor.  He taught me the things that make me the mechanic I am today."  These old guys got into the business during a time when it was still common to actually repair things instead of just replacing things.  Those old guys would rebuild starters, alternators, water pumps, they would reline brake shoes and rebuild calipers and wheel cylinders.  But, times have changed.  The most common parts have become cheap enough that replacement is (usually) the most cost-effective thing to do.  Time is money.  I think there are times, even in a modern shop, where being able to repair something versus replacing, would be the right choice.  The thing with that situation is that there needs to be someone in the shop capable of repair.  As I mentioned earlier, those old guys and their skills are disappearing from the business.  The skills are always going to be around, but probably not as much as they used to be.  Think about it.  When you break something, who's the guy in your shop you would go to for advice?  In our shop, I'm that guy.

In my shop I'm the guy the other mechanics come to when something breaks or when other uncommon advice is needed.  I'm not bragging, nor did I make the choice to be that guy.  It just happened gradually over my career.  But it really started when I was a child.  Before I started going to school my Mother would, of course, have to take me along when she was running errands.  She would get her coupons out and compare the supply of coupons to the list of needed items.  At the stores she would compare prices.  $.02 mattered.  My Father, aside from working two full time jobs, was in charge of the "mechanical" stuff.  By the time I was born, our family had two cars.  That was quite a luxury.  Well, I think they had two cars long before I was born, but they were both used cars.  Anyway, when it was possible my Father purchased a new car for my Mother.  He knew she worked at home just as hard as he did in the factory and he didn't want her dealing with a break down while out shopping.  He drove an old car.  I barely remember it, but "Dad's car" when I was really young was a pink/white '56 Chevy four door.  I also remember having second hand lawn mowers, tools, window air conditioners etc.  I also had a lot of "hand me down" clothes as well as shirts and pajamas made by my Mother.  This was the time when I became who I am.

I never received an "allowance" as a child.  I was expected to help with chores and that was it.  I helped Dad paint storm windows and screens.  You young folk out there, it used to be normal to pull the screens off in fall and put the storm windows on for winter.  Reverse that procedure in spring.  The screens and storm windows got painted whenever the house got painted.  I remember Dad showing me, when painting screens, how to drive a nail into a scrap of wood, sharpen the point and then use that tool to poke out paint from the screens.  When I was older, I helped Dad paint the house along with my brothers.  I raked leaves (which were bagged and lined up around the house's foundation for extra insulation in winter), when old enough I took over lawn mowing duties.  Being the last child, I mowed that lawn long after my Father had died, and long after I moved out.  When Dad knew he wasn't going to live much longer he had told me "Take care of your Mother."  A duty which I am proudly performing to this day.  Can you see how those years formed me into who I am?  We had no choice but to make our own things and perform our own repairs whenever possible.

I bought my first drum kit when I was in junior high.  It was crap, but I was too young and naive' to know any better.  I spent $200 (It took a really, really long time to save up that much money) on it.  The shitty hardware started breaking almost immediately.  New, or even used, equipment was not a possibility.  So, I had to fix it as best I could.  Sometimes it would work, often it didn't.  Enter junior high and high school shop classes.  The things I learned in shop class at such a young age are still with me.  I learned about different woods, metals, hand tools, machine tools etc.  Skills that would serve me well into my adult life.  It was normal back then.  I grew up in a manufacturing town. The skills taught to us in school were, ideally, preparing us to take over the jobs our Fathers were working at.  If your mind can twist enough, I started my career when I was a child.  At the current time, I'm somewhat of a rarity.  Most of the other kids I was in shop class with are working at jobs completely unrelated to those shop classes.  I put those skills to use on a daily basis.  The young mechanics in my care weren't so lucky.

Beaver has the aptitude, but not the background.  His Dad was (and still is) a salesman.  Beaver has talent in spades, but is still gaining experience despite having risen to shop foreman.  Igor, as with Beaver, is chock full of aptitude but is somewhat lacking in experience.  These are but two examples, but they're the best examples.  They're both very smart and only require a bit of guidance (via my experience) to get them moving forward.  I'm very happy to have both of them in the shop.  I'm also very proud of them.  My relationship with both of those people is very much a Journeyman-Apprentice relationship.  However, Beaver is a much better foreman than I and I defer to him regularly.  Igor?  I'll be starting my ninth year at this shop in a couple of weeks and Igor has been the only person that has been truly worth the time I've put into teaching new mechanics.  I'm not knocking the other guys in the shop.  There's a lot of talent there, but Beaver and Igor are stand-outs.  But...

...nobody can drill a straight hole or even sharpen a drill properly.  When broken bolts need to be removed, I am the guy that removes them.  The other guys have made attempts to remove broken bolts, only to fuck things up and make the whole situation worse.  It is now understood that if there is ANY doubt, they are to not make any attempts to remove the offending fastener.  They will stop and leave it for me to deal with.  You see, when someone is not good at removing broken bolts tries to remove a broken bolt, the surrounding part can easily be fucked up beyond repair.  The worst is finding a drill, tap or "e-z out" broken off in a poorly drilled (meaning crooked) hole.  The other guys know that such shitty workmanship makes my job of "clean up batter" that much harder and I will not be a pleasant person upon finding just such a situation.  That situation will cause loss of time and money.  The rear structure (what a transmission bolts to) on, say, a Cummins ISX is a good example.  The bolts which hold transmission to rear structure occasionally break.  A steel bolt into an aluminum part... It corrodes.  When someone who can't center punch properly, drill straight or even use a tap and die set properly tries to remove that broken fastener... The whole of the rear structure could be ruined.  The best situation would require removal of the rear structure (a huge consumption of time, therefore money) and sending it out to a machine shop.  The worst would be having to replace the rear structure.  What would you rather tell the customer?  They'll have to wait a few more hours for someone (me, for example) to remove the broken fasteners at a slight increase in cost, or that they'll be spending another $2,000 in parts and labor to replace the whole rear structure?  Every part can be replaced, but in situations such as this repair is the correct path.  Unless someone else has fucked with it, I rarely have to use a heli-coil for thread repair.

I take every opportunity to teach the newer guys.  I usually start by asking a question.  "Hey, Igor.  Bell housing bolt broke off in the rear structure.  What's the first step?"  It gets their brain working.  A lot of these people have learned these things but have never had the chance to apply them.  I try and bridge that gap.  When Igor gives his reply, we work from that point.  If his answer is "Drill it out."  I reply with "No, establishing the center of the bolt."   I then walk him through each step of removing a broken bolt.  Time usually dictates the situation.  When able, I'll have the person watch every step I make.  Unfortunately, the modern shop environment (meaning flat rate) does not allow for such instruction to take place on a regular basis.

Broken bolt removal is just ONE example.  What if someone finds a thermostat housing that is warped?  The knee jerk reaction is to get a new one.  Sounds like a good idea, but is it?  If you're working on your car at home (or in a shop) chances are you can call 'round the parts stores, find a new housing and have it in an hour or two.  A truck shop, especially our shop, is a different situation.  The base engine may be common, but the installation could vary greatly.  To get a new thermostat housing for, as an example, a Mercedes MB400 would require the following.  Getting in contact with the customer and acquiring approval to replace the part.  "What's that going to cost me?" is the usual question.  Many factors will have to be considered.  There's one truck dealer in our town, an International dealer, and they are definitely NOT going to have anything for a Mercedes engine.  I would then have to call the nearest supplier.  The parts guy and myself would then have to find our way onto the same "page".  This frequently involves having an exploded diagram faxed, the correct part being circled, then the fax being sent back to the parts guy.  If the dealer even had the thermostat housing in stock I would then have to find someone to go and get it.  In the case of this fictional Mercedes engine, getting the part would require a 2.5 hour round trip.  Not to mention the time it would take me to create a PO.  If I can't find a non-mechanic to get the part (which is frequent on the night shift) I have to take a mechanic off of what he's currently doing.  All of this equates to a lot of wasted time.  I have to stop what I'm working on to find and order a part.  I will, possibly, have to pull a mechanic off a job to go and get this new part.  Putting us even further behind schedule.  The solution to this problem is easy.  Repair.  I take ten minutes to show a mechanic how to flatten the housing with a file (or sandpaper on a flat surface), I show them how to make a gasket from bulk material and we're moving forward.

Another customer has a crap alternator.  Am I going to figure out what part of the alternator failed and then repair it?  Hell no.  We stock two alternators (a pad mount and a swing mount) which will work on, I'm guessing here, 90% of heavy duty trucks.  The most efficient path is calling the customer "Hello, Mr. Doe?  Your alternator is junk.  We have one in stock and it will cost $xxx to replace it.  Shall we procede?"  Am I capable of repairing alternators?  Yes.  Is repair an efficient option?  No.

An idler gear for a lift gate chain has a bad needle bearing.  Repair or replace?  Think about your shop and the resources available to you.  If you have a bearing supplier nearby, replacement might be the best choice.  Take the bearing and gear to the supplier, the person at the counter takes some measurements, walks back into the racks and comes out with a new bearing.  Easy.  At our shop, there isn't a supplier like that nearby.  For us the repair option is the best choice.  I take the gear and bearing home with me, chuck a piece of brass in my lathe and make a bushing to fit.  It would be installed the next day.  If the job is an ASAP job Beaver, being the daytime foreman and living near to me, could pick up the repaired part on his way to work in the morning.  Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

The repair or replace decision is going to be unique to every shop.  But without those old hands and their skills, you will be a replace only shop.  You will be at the mercy of your parts suppliers.  You old guys out there, take every opportunity to share your skills with the young guys.  And you young guys, put aside your cockiness and listen to what the old guys are trying to teach you.

This post is dedicated to Dad, Tooley, I-Beam, Dale and Hook.  I wouldn't be half the mechanic I am today without these men taking the time to teach me their skills.

No comments: