A Decade Of Discovery
By Carroll McCormick
Ten years ago I got a call from Bill Roebuck, this magazine's editor and associate publisher. He needed an emergency-turnaround profile of two maintenance managers.
By Carroll McCormick
Ten years ago I got a call from Bill Roebuck, this magazine’s editor and associate publisher. He needed an emergency-turnaround profile of two maintenance managers.
Just about all I knew about maintenance was that regular engine oil changes are a good idea, but Bill prepped me with a list of questions and off I went. I tracked down a maintenance superintendent at a nickel-copper mine in northeastern Quebec and a mechanical maintenance supervisor in an asphalt shingle plant near Montreal. I phoned the former, visited the latter, banged out the stories and sent them off to Bill.
Since then I have written 64 articles for the magazine, most of them profiles of maintenance teams and how they go about their business. I have stood on top of a 190-tonne turbine, bounced around in a control cab at a gypsum mill, seen molten marbles blown into clouds of cotton candy glass fibre and sat across from seven maintenance men at a dental drill bit plant where preventive maintenance was still a novelty act.
I also made a return visit (by phone) to my favourite mechanical toy: the one-million-tonne Hibernia offshore oil production platform 315 kilometres off Newfoundland’s east coast, for a two-part piece on keeping that monster running.
I have seen production lines pop out pies, tin cans, butter, trucks, flash-frozen fish, newspapers, jet aircraft and various plastic thingies.
I’ve even participated in screaming roller coaster rides in the name of work; I had accepted a Father’s Day treat from my daughter to visit an amusement park, and while waiting for our turn on the Vampire, I realized that I was on a production line and the product was fun (that led to the February 2007 cover story and my second cover photo).
The most bizarre contraption I set eyes on was a bottle-blowing machine at the Owens-Illinois glass container plant in Montreal. It reminded me powerfully of an internal combustion engine — camshafts, connecting rods, pistons, springs and gizmos — except that it was inside out. I got a kick out of taking time-exposure photographs of the machine swinging red-hot bottles around, which ran with my article in September 2003.
I have always liked mechanical things, but my childhood passion for photography led me to a vocational school in Halifax at the base of Citadel Hill. Three years later I began what would become seven years of study in psychology at Acadia University and the University of British Columbia, where I completed my Master’s degree in 1986.
However, my trade for the past 15 years has been as a curious freelance journalist: My photography background and trusty Sony camera keeps Ellie Robinson, our award-winning art director and layout specialist, supplied with pictures, and my university training drilled into me the importance of formulating good questions and sniffing out the good answers.
Patient maintenance managers have taught me a lot about keeping plants running and the absolute necessity of their trade to any manufacturing operation. They have shown me fascinating places that are off-limits to most people: how else could a person get a cook’s tour of a paper mill, zinc refinery, brewery, automated cargo handling facility, skate manufacturer, quarry, or … interview an astronaut!
Ah, outer space. After years of on-the-fly maintenance education, it began to dawn on me that science fiction had ignored the maintenance challenges that surely must exist in long-term space travel, although maintenance consultant Peter Phillips (profiled in Magazine’s November 2008 issue) did remind me that Scotty had to tell Captain Kirk on every show that the Starship Enterprise engines were down for repairs … again. So I decided that we badly needed a maintenance profile of the International Space Station (ISS).
I called Bill and explained that he should send me into space for my next story (a return ticket is only $20 million). His reply was not, “Have you been into the Scotch again?” but rather, “Are you going to interview an astronaut?” What a guy. Turns out, it was a story he’d long wanted to run in the magazine.
In surprisingly short order, the Canadian Space Agency lined me up for a telephone interview with Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, who flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1998, and I was getting the inside dope on zero-G maintenance techniques. That was an exciting interview for this boy! I tracked down a 399-page manual on the International Space Station to read, located some snazzy NASA images for Ellie to play with and Bill ran my piece as the cover story in the December 2003 issue of MRO.
So do you have a maintenance operation you’d like to talk about? Give me a shout via my editor. I make house calls within striking distance of Montreal (about a two-hour radius) and in Nova Scotia, but longer-distance interviews are possible too.
Carroll McCormick, the senior contributing editor for Machinery & Equipment MRO, has been writing for this magazine since September 1998. In this profile, he neglected to mention the Gold Award, Top Five awards and multiple nominations he has received for his articles in Magazine in competitions for editorial excellence.