Sep 23, 2014
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May 2014 Archive for In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

Just Another Day In The Shop

May 31, 2014

 Let's see, on Friday...

-I got six hours of work done on the machine I've been working on all week. Bosses wanted the job completed so they could "close" the ticket and include it in the financials for the month of May, but that didn't happen. (So, that's six hours I can bill out of a 10-hour day. No wonder my billable hours are in the pits.)

-I stopped what I was doing and gave advice three times to younger mechanics who were doing certain repairs for the first time, who asked for tips on how to do get things apart, how to put things together, or how to calibrate things after repairs. (Gee, the old goat isn't as dumb as he seems.)

-Answered questions about a job I completed two months ago, about how many parts I used and other details of the job. (I have to use a map to get home after work; how the heck am I supposed to remember how many parts I used on a job from two months ago?)

-Worked over the phone with a customer for an hour or more in a series of phone calls, discussing problems with his autosteer system to diagnose the problem, figure out what parts were needed, and set up a service call next week to fix the problem. (It's always a gamble diagnosing things over the phone, but if I guess right, it saves the customer the time and expense of a diagnostic service call.)

-Tore into a job I estimated would take one hour and $100 of parts, and found after I had things torn apart that it would take 8 eight hours and more than $1500 in parts. Called the customer and delicately explained the situation, apologized and got permission to complete the repairs. After completing the call, I drank a Pepsi and tried to figure out how I could have anticipated, diagnosed or otherwise predicted the unexpected repairs. (These are the times when I appreciate the way car dealerships handle customer relations--their mechanics work only on cars and never talk to customers. Their service writers deal with customers, billing and explanations.)

-A customer wandered into the shop to tell me his planter worked perfectly, his crops are off to a great start,  that he's really happy with the money he spent in our shop last winter on planter maintenance, and to work out details for getting his combine ready for harvest. (These are the times when I appreciate the way our dealership allows mechanics and customers to interact face-to-face.)

-Had to ask a younger mechanic how to make a repair I'd never done before, that required some sophisticated calibrations via connection with a laptop computer. (I've come to realize that computers are my best friends and worst enemies, and that they can change from friend to foe in a single keystroke.)

The rest of the day was a blur of customer questions, management questions, stripped bolts, frozen bearings, questions from co-workers about how to make repairs, questions to co-workers about how to make repairs, and a half-dozen trips to the parts department.

When I got home and my wife asked what sort of day I'd had, I said, "Oh, normal." 

Things I Wish I Didn't Have To Say

May 25, 2014

 I have great relationships with many of my customers, to the point where we can often joke during the sometimes delicate discussions we have about repairs that need to be made to their equipment. One longtime customer suggested that we could save time if I numbered the phrases I commonly use when discussing repairs with him, and just say the number instead of going into a long explanation. For example: 

Dan's standard phrase #1: "Gee, I've never seen that part break before."

Dan's standard phrase #2: "Do you just want it fixed, or do you want it fixed right?"

Dan's standard phrase #3, usually over the phone: "Say, now that I've got this torn apart, I've found some more things that really should be fixed, and it's going to be more expensive than we thought."

I'm all for saving time and being efficient, and have been wondering if my wife would go along with a similar numbering system. As in:

Dan's standard phrase #1: "Yes, dear."

Dan's standard phrase #2: "No, dear."

Dan's standard phrase #3: "Mmmm-hmmm." (As in, "I didn't hear what you said, but I'm nodding and agreeing because I've been married long enough to know that's the safest course of action.")

To Re-Use, Or Not To Re-Use...

May 22, 2014

 When you make repairs to your machinery, do  you re-use lock collars, bearing flangettes, and other parts that aren't broken or worn out? I confess that it's a judgement call every time I make repairs, whether I replace all parts with new parts, or re-install parts that I removed incidental to the repairs.

It's obviously best to use new parts, but in an effort to save my customers money, I'll re-use as many parts as possible. For example:

-if bearing lock collars aren't cracked, worn or obviously damaged, I'll often re-use them. If they don't lock firmly by hand, or won't lock after when tapped with a hammer, I replace them.

-if I had to disassemble a bearing to get to another part of the machine, I'll often re-use the bearing flangettes or bearing mounting block. If the bearing is easy to get to, I may even re-use the bearing, depending on its condition, and if it's okay with the machine's owner. If the bearing is buried deep inside the machine and difficult to get to, I'll replace that bearing during the repairs, even if that particular bearing isn't the cause of the repairs. Any time I have an excuse to freshen a bearing that is buried deep in a machine, I do.

-I generally re-use nuts and bolts unless they're so corroded that they don't thread back together well. Or if they're torque-critical bolts like engine cylinder head bolts.

Ultimately, my goal is to make repairs as economically as possible, so that the machine will run for many hours before more repairs are necessary. If I can save my customer a few bucks by re-using parts, I will, but if I have to decide between saving money and durable repairs, I'll always choose durable repairs.

Conventional Versus Synthetic Lubricants

May 18, 2014

 Without getting into deep, deep comparisons of hydrocarbon chemistry, here are some comments about the use of conventional and synthetic lubricants:

-Synthetic gear oils are great stuff. Problems with gear cases that develop high temperatures can often be reduced by switching from conventional mineral-based gear lube to synthetic gear lube. Even if synthetic lube doesn't drastically reduce operating temperatures, the synthetic lube will stand up to the higher temperatures better than conventional gear lube. 

-Synthetic ENGINE oil can be too slippery. In conversations with guys who build racing engines for stock cars, they uniformally prefer to break-in high performance engines with traditional engine oil. Synthetic oils are so "slippery" they sometimes prevent piston rings from properly "seating" against cylinder walls.  Once the engines are broken-in, those engine builders like synthetic engine oils due to their superior lubricative and heat control properties. 

-It's best not to mix synthetic lubricants with conventional lubricants. Blending the two lubricants generally won't cause catastrophic failures, but it diminishes the benefits that each type of lube offers.

-If the owner's manual says to use synthetic lubricants, don't substitute or blend conventional lubricants. Because of the unique properties of synthetic lubricants, conventional lubes may not meet the needs of machinery designed specifically to be lubricated with synthetics.

Precision Is Only One Option With This Tool

May 15, 2014

 I'm far from a machinist, but I own three calipers, and wouldn't mind owning one or two more. Calipers are those measuring devices that are shaped roughly like a small, flat pipe wrench. They're used for obtaining precise measurements. High-end, $125 digital calipers accurately measure to ten-thousandtsh of an inch.

My $5 plastic caliper is probably accurate for measuring down to eights of an inch. My $15 metal caliper is good down to sixy-fourths of an inch. My $40 digital caliper is good for thousandths of an inch, when I can keep a decent battery in it.

I'm content with the accuracy my cheapo set of calipers provides me. Most of the time I use my the plastic or metal caliper to compare sizes of objects. If I need to know if a shaft and bearing are going to be compatible, I size one of those calipers to fit the shaft, then hold that setting and see if it does or doesn't fit in the bearing. For generic measuring of shafts, sprocket bores and other round or holed objects, being able to measure within 1/32 of an inch on the crude scales of those economy-grade calipers is close enough to allow me to make the comparisons I need.

If I need to know more precise measurements, like if I need to know a shaft's diameter within 0.01 inch in order to match it with a specification in a tech manual, I get along well with my low-buck digital caliper. For some reason it won't last more than a month or two on the watch battery that powers it, even if I keep it turned off in its storage case. I've learned to keep a couple spare batteries in the case, and despite that annoyance, that caliper serves my needs well for the infrequent precision measurements I take.

Calipers aren't a high-use tool for me--maybe once or twice a month. But I've come to depend on them when I need them. If I break or lose one, I replace it as soon as possible. They aren't essential tools, but handy tools to have, even for somebody as imprecise as me.

Accumulated Wear

May 11, 2014

 Catastrophic breakdowns of planters are easy to diagnose and it's easy to justify their repairs. A drill shaft breaks, and you either fix it or you can't plant. 

It's tougher to diagnose problems that develop because of wear to multiple components. A worn seed unit drive chain will go around its sprockets just fine, but can crawl and jump teeth and cause hard-to-diagnose problems with low populations in that row. The same goes for worn sprockets--yes, they still "grip" the chain links, but under load they can either jump a tooth, or even worse, snag and jerk the chain with worn, hooked teeth.

Planter bearings are notoriously prone to failure with little visible evidence of the failure. Planter driveshafts turn slowly, so failed bearings don't fly apart and draw attention to themselves. They just get stiffer and stiffer, occasionally grabbing and catching to cause mysterious blank spots in multiple rows that are too short to show up on the seed monitor during planting. They only show up as multi-row empty spots once the crop emerges.

Wear- and age-related mechanical issues on planters are tough to diagnose, but it's even tougher to justify spending money on preventive maintenance. The parts don't look "broke." They "work," as in, the shafts and bearing turn. And when you start pricing a dozen or more drive chains and twice that many drive sprockets, along with associated bearings, you're looking at a sizeable check. Add the cost of paying a mechanic to do the work, and that "good ol' planter" suddenly becomes expensive.

The reason for this blog topic is because I spent a total of 16 hours and multiple trips over the past week trying to diagnose problems in an older planter. Final diagnosis is still up in the air, but so far I've replaced a worn clutch, a worn driveshaft, worn main drive sprockets and worn main drive chain. None of the parts were broken. None of the parts were worn enough to cause problems by themselves. But each part added a little extra drag, an occasional jerk, or some other minor glitch to the overall planting process that contributed to a planter that wouldn't plant even close to correctly. 

Would the farmer have paid to replace all those parts ahead of the season? Probably not, because the repairs would have cost more than half the value of the 20-year-old planter, and in the words of the farmer, "they aren't totally worn out yet."

Sometimes a little wear "here" and a little wear "there" add up to a major breakdown "now."

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