Collaboration and follow through produce big results
Challenges in the workplace demand problem solving and collaboration, and for some employees, those traits seem to come naturally.
Crook County High School alumnus Jason Rice was recently recognized for identifying a problem and collaboratively creating a part for one of Caterpillar's engines. He works for Emerald Public Utility District Methane Power Plant Generation in Eugene, Oregon. His company partners with Peterson, who is the authorized Cat Dealer in western Oregon, southwest Washington, and northern California. They supply sales, rental, service, and parts for Cat engines for all customers in their territory.
Rice is a 1989 Crook County High School alumnus and is the son of Jim and Diana Rice. He was involved in the mechanics program at the high school, which was managed at the time by Neil Mapes.
"I really wasn't the best student, as far as mechanically inclined, but it was a starting point. I think the vocational (program) is missed," he noted of the mechanics program that was cut in 2009.
Although mechanics was not a class that rebounded, Crook County High School has rebuilt a comprehensive Career and Technical Education (CTE) program since 2009, with classes in agriculture science, culinary, business, construction, health science, graphic design and media, manufacturing, natural resources, and robotics and computer science.
Upon graduation, Rice worked for a local mill for a short time before joining the United States Army in 1992. He was in active duty from 1993 to 1996, stationed stateside as a heavy equipment mechanic on military vehicles. He then completed his time in the Army and joined the Oregon National Guard, while working for a training site near Redmond doing similar work for the National Guard.
He moved to Eugene shortly after joining the National Guard, enrolling at Lane Community College for the Diesel Technology Program. He began working for Pape in 1996, while attending college and continued working for them until 2005. He worked in the heavy equipment shop, the engine and the engine and transmission rebuild shop, and did field service. He completed his apprenticeship for heavy equipment technician while at Pape, which coincided with his college degree in diesel technology.
He went to work for the Emerald People's Utility District (PUD) in Eugene, Oregon in 2005, which provides electrical service to rural areas outside of Eugene city limits. He worked for their fleet shop in heavy equipment and the Short Mountain Methane Generation Plant, where they take Methane gas produced from landfill garbage. They capture the gas and draw it into the power plant, and the landfill gas is a fuel source for the Caterpillar engine they use to burn the methane gas.
"The methane gas is natural gas but considered a low BTU gas," explained Rice. "Landfill gas has a BTU content (British Thermal Units) of 450 BTUs per cubic foot of gas, compared to natural gas in your home of 950 BTUs per cubic foot of gas."
Microorganisms decompose organic material in the landfill, and the result is a biproduct of CH4 (methane), (CO2) carbon dioxide and H2O (water). The gas produced could be damaging to the environment amd is considered a greenhouse gas, but it is subsequently collected into a point of entry into a collection system called a GCCS, which is a gas collection and control system.
"At my company, there is a person that is in charge of installing, implementing and maintaining the gas collection system and delivering it to the power plant. My specific job is in charge of the power plant and everything that happens within the inside the building of the plant where all the machinery is at," added Rice.
He compared the engine to a large locomotive engine—except it is not diesel. They are 16-cylinder engines, with water-cooled exhaust manifolds to help keep the engine cool and lower exhaust emissions. The engine turns an electrical generator, which produces 800 KW per generator, with 4 generator combinations. When all four engines are running at full capacity it puts out 3.2 megawatts.
Rice Indicated that the plant produces more methane gas in fall, winter, and spring months than summer due to environmental conditions such as humidity, moisture, temperature, and atmospheric pressure to create a cycle that is not as active in summer. Sometimes he cannot run all four engines during slow times due to less gas being produced.
In this harsh environment from the caustic and corrosive nature of the landfill gasses, each of the engines have water-cooled exhaust manifolds that are expected to be replaced regularly. However, they have repeatedly failed prematurely and without warning, due to the environment. The engines are 29 years old, with more than 150,000 run hours on them. The failures from the resulting environmental conditions are costly, and replacing two manifolds can amount to $30,000, not to include generation hours and man hours to restore them to working conditions.
Rice had been studying the exhaust manifold and kept detailed records of his tests and findings. He identified early on that the air shield was fabricated from mild steel, making it less resistant to chemical corrosion than stainless steel. He subsequently wrote a 34-page report with diagrams and photos of the corroded parts, including a dated log.
Tony Podesta is the Product Support Sales Representative for Electric Power & Industrial Engine for Peterson Power Systems, Inc. in Southern Oregon. He routinely visits the sites where their engines have been installed and are being utilized for a variety of applications.
"When I brought my sales and service manager down to the site just to kind of show off the installation there and introduce him to Jason, and he mentioned that he had this problem with these water-cooled exhaust manifolds."
After much discussion, Podesta indicated that he recognized that there could be an opportunity for product improvement. The engines at this time were close to 14 years old.
"Caterpillar's willingness to look at problems that customers are having, and not only try to fix the problem but actually to improve products that are not even necessarily new model production is absolutely phenomenal. Jason had a very detailed report—he really did his due diligence."
Podesta took his report to Caterpillar and submitted the data and explained the problem, and the product improvement department subsequently had been working on a similar problem. They took the information and created a new part which was fit onto the engine at Emerald's Methane Power Plant. The protocol is to install it and leave it on for one year, then take it off and Caterpillar to be assessed.
During a zoom meeting with Caterpillar's corporate headquarters in Illinois, he was able to talk with a panel of engineers and explain his report.
"They were very impressed with my report," said Rice.
His report allowed the solution and research to move forward.
"It was something that I think helped press the point on "we need to address this particular area in the exhaust manifolds that fail because they keep corroding in a caustic and acidic environment with the landfill gas."'
Rice said that Caterpillar's engineers made some prototype parts, which were sent to his plant and installed into the engine. They included one of the prototypes and one of the old defective parts. It was left on for one year and both were analyzed and tested. Shortly after, Caterpillar came out with an official parts change announcement that the manifolds had been updated to a new stainless-steel model that is now available to buy from the public around the world.
"This one happened to culminate in an actually improved product, which is now the standard part for this particular part," said Podesta emphatically.
He added that their longstanding relationship with Emerald Methane Power Plant has been fruitful, and Caterpillar gladly provides the support to keep them up and running. Podesta said that this has been a collaborative effort, based on Rice's work on collecting the data and finding a solution that could benefit not only his company, but other companies who use the Cat engines.
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