The Devil Is in the Details: My Life with Equipment Maintenance

May 29, 2015

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I can't say that I grew up around a lot of equipment, but the equipment I did grow up around needed constant maintenance. From as early as I can remember Dad bought the cheapest oil, whatever filters were on sale, and called it good. It didn’t matter as far as he was concerned. Something else would go wrong before there was ever a problem with the engine.

Our first tractor was an old gasoline Case with a front-loader that we used for everything: It was our plow, our disc, our harrow, our mower, our hoist, our man-lift, our fork-lift, our cement was just flat-our our workhorse. Thinking back, I have no idea why Dad ”cheaped” out on anything with that tractor as much as we needed it. Without it, we could never have built up their rental property business like it is today.

And that’s where I started at the dealer, with the assumption that none of this much mattered. It was a convenience that Cat had filters and fluids so they could be delivered in-house, and we didn’t have to worry about sourcing something else. Everyone told me it was made by someone else and just branded, so that’s what I thought. Conventional folk-wisdom prevailed, until I became the asset and inventory manager at the rental store.

Once I had to make sourcing decisions, things began to get more complicated. I had to support all makes of equipment, and every company had its own maintenance parts: filters, blades, teeth, you name it. But the fluids were mostly just called out by some industry spec, and I couldn’t easily tell what was good quality and what was bad quality. Add in the fact that I didn’t want to stock about 100 filters from a dozen different companies that could all probably cross-match to the same aftermarket filter, and things got really complicated.

My lead technician told me about how they had this skid-steer they sold out of the rental fleet. It ran fine when they sold it, but the customer brought it back in complaining it wouldn’t move. They tested it, and it whined and jerked all over the place and just in general was totally useless. He opened up the rear compartment; spun off all the competitive filters, spun on Cat, and zoom, away it went. Lesson: There are way more things to consider about a filter’s performance than whether it fits.

So I went along fine thinking this stuff “kind of mattered” until I took my first Applied Failure Analysis (AFA) class; that’s when everything changed. For the first time, I was able to see the consequences of poor maintenance concentrated in one location and it didn’t look good. The instructor was a farmer, and he had all kinds of broken parts from his own equipment to relate to what we got back from the field in Cat. It turned out that if something didn’t fail from overload or the rare defect then everything was about metal-to-metal contact. Most simply, there were only two culprits: contamination and lubrication.

If you had contamination, you had contaminants grinding between components until the components themselves started to grind. If you had loss of lubrication, the components would just grind directly. Your job, your ultimate goal, was to identify the sequence of failures leading back to root cause. Find the root cause and you’d find your true problem.

Before AFA I had never thought about failures in this way. Really, I just classified them into two categories: “That shouldn’t have broke!” or “I was doing something stupid and broke it.” If I’d stopped to analyze it, yes, I knew something failed because it was overloaded, but mostly I just reacted intuitively. I didn’t think about load cycles, abrasive and adhesive wear, cavitation, or all the things shortening the life of a part and making it weaker and weaker. I didn’t think about how to protect the parts and keep them from failing, or how to make them last as long as possible with proper maintenance.

Then I landed here, in my current role as a marketing consultant for filters and fluids, and again everything changed. I learned not only just how much this “stuff” matters, but also how much time and effort Caterpillar puts into getting it right. Even though I worked in Cat for seven years before getting here, and even though I’d worked in the dealer before that, I still didn’t really believe that Cat engineered filters and fluids. Turns out this isn’t just some “add-on,” “label-slapping,” “gravy-train” program like I’d always believed, a belief with plenty of people willing to reinforce it. Maybe it’s because Cat is so different, and so many other companies do just run through the “label-slapping” program, that makes it so hard to understand why filters and fluids are important.

Caterpillar makes heavy equipment, and heavy equipment is production equipment. Most of our customers probably put more hours on their equipment in one month than we put on my Dad’s loader the entire time we’ve owned it. When you really look at it, you just can’t take your experiences with automotive and agriculture equipment and apply them to heavy equipment.

Heavy equipment reaches a service interval most of us never reach with our equipment, and reaches it quickly. So we have to provide better protection, if we want to get a long life out of it. Personally, it was a shift in my perception to stop looking at physical age of the unit and start looking at service hours, because it’s just too easy to fall into the trap of “Yeah, but I’ve always done this and never had a problem.” Yeah, you never have a problem, until you do.

And that’s where I’m at today in my learning journey. I know this “stuff” matters, and I keep learning more and more every day: from our chemists, our engineers, people who’ve been in the field for ages. And I’m learning that it matters for equipment that has low hours too, that sits most of the time, and in some cases is even more important. There is a mindset people get into when they have equipment that they don’t use on a regular basis. “I don’t use it very often, why should I dump a lot of money in it, it’ll be fine for the little I use it.” But the reality is, you don’t have a backup, and as it sits idle, you should wonder: Is water condensing on the gears? Is acid etching your bearings? These are things that may never be an issue with daily use, and they are things that you could prevent.

When you go to run that tractor and the engine is seized, or a gear-tooth shatters, what do you do? You’re in the middle of a field with no cell reception, no hope of rescue, you just figure it out as best you can, and curse something or someone as you stomp through the weeds hoping you don’t get bitten by a rattlesnake, but never really pointing the finger at yourself for filling with the cheapest oil you could find at the warehouse store. Face it, when you have equipment where the gauges don’t even work, you put a lot of faith in your filters and fluids performing, faith that maybe you shouldn’t. So when I beat the drum for Cat Fluids and Filters, that’s why. I know we test our products to meet our applications, regardless of whatever industry certification we can also put on the label. Yeah, we do have suppliers, we don’t have our own oil wells, but those suppliers either give us the products they have that meet all our Caterpillar specifications and requirements, or they make us new ones that do (we even built our own filter-manufacturing plant because of all the troubles we had getting suppliers to meet our specifications). I’ve yet to find another example in the industry where that’s true.

And then we test, and test, and test. And, if we get feedback from the field of any problems, we make changes, and then test, and test, and test. I can say that we make our products absolutely right for our machines, and that they are the best products you can buy for your Cat (and maybe, probably, all your other brands, too. But we don’t test that any more than anyone else; we just have the same certifications that “it’ll work”).

We genuinely want to protect our customers and their machines, and sometimes that means protecting them from buying inferior products, and sometimes that means protecting each other from ourselves. We want this protection for our customers and their machines more than we want to take our competitors’ business, and so I feel free to say with no sense of being a corporate shill, that using Caterpillar filters and fluids on your machine is the absolute best protection you can provide.

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About the Author

Eric Shaffer

Eric Shaffer is a Marketing Consultant with the Caterpillar Fluids and Filters group. He most recently held a service-support position, with six years in the field supporting customers and dealers with Caterpillar Hydro-Mechanical Work-Tools. Eric has experienced nearly every facet of the business, growing up as an owner-operator through his family businesses, and beginning his Caterpillar career pulling parts orders at the dealer warehouse in Wichita, Kan.