There was a time when the plant engineer might have been compared to Mighty Mouse. Remember his theme song? “Here I come to save the day!”
And there was the firefighter analogy. In fact, it was so prevalent that what we now call “breakdown” or “emergency” maintenance was sometimes referred to as “firefighter” maintenance.
Although plant engineering may still fill the role of “emergency response team,” we’ve fortunately moved beyond that as a mindset. We are now more of an emergency prevention team with a mindset more toward reliability.
In the old days, it was easy to conjure up the image of plant engineer as hero. Today’s plant engineers may seem less heroic. But that is not the case. The activities may be less dramatic, but they are no less important.
A recent cover story in U.S. News & World Report (8/20/01) brought this subject to mind. The article provided this definition of heroes: “1. They go beyond the call of duty. 2. They act wisely under pressure. 3. They risk their life, their fortune, or their reputation. 4. They champion a good cause. 5. They serve as a calling to our higher selves.”
I would add another trait that is perhaps implicit in the five listed. It certainly underlies the descriptions provided in the rest of the report: Heroes serve others — perhaps in a single, dramatic act or, more often, in smaller, quiet actions over a period of time, but always in a selfless manner. In fact, the report says, “More than two-thirds of all Americans who’ve lost respect for a hero said it was because the individual was overly concerned with personal recognition.”
Plant engineering is a service and support function. It exists solely to enable the production of a product. It provides the capability and the capacity for production. Plant engineers are the individuals who provide this service, typically with limited resources and little recognition.
I’ve worked with hundreds of plant engineers over the years, and I’d say that most of them — especially the really good ones — exemplify most of the heroic qualities listed here. I have often wondered at their dedication to serving and improving their plants, quietly and often in the face of adversity.
Today, they are facing the challenges of uncertain energy supplies, tremendous technological changes, shortages of skilled workers, and ever-increasing pressures to make their plants more efficient and reliable. I’m confident that these unsung industrial heroes will succeed.