Tips to Overcome the Confusion and Trials of “Tribal Knowledge”

Tribal knowledge is any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company. This term is used most when referencing information that may need to be known by others in order to produce a quality product or service.  I have been hearing this term a lot lately, I found out it may have been made popular by Six Sigma training.  In the metal finishing industry, we are faced with a lot of turnover, death, extinction/rebirth of plating machines, employment position eliminations, and new workers into the workforce.  Along with these challenges, the “basics” of metal finishing concepts, that were common (“tribal”) knowledge amongst old-time platers and plating/metal finishing managers have been lost.  Here are a few tips to help overcome the loss or misconceptions of tribal knowledge and restore some common sense and basics to your finishing operation, to better service your clients and make more money.

Basic Measurements

  1. Start taking basic measurements of your system. When I started out in the service field of metal finishing, I knew very little, but I did know how to record the basic data and observations of a finishing line and report them to the plating manager. Now, most of the troubleshooting I encounter begins with the common concept “is it plugged in?”; in other words, many times simple, undetected changes in temperature, pH, pressure, flow rates, and times caused your problem – solved simply by metaphorically plugging it in.  You may not know the complex chemical reactions going on in your solutions, but hopefully, you know how to read a thermometer, pH paper/probe, clock, psi gauge, amp meter, volt meter, and flow rate meter.  Begin recording the parameters that apply to your system daily.  A heater being left off or damaged, a pump being left off or damaged, a burned out rectifier, etc. can quickly be detected with simple daily measurements – preventing thousands of dollars in rework.  Also, walk and watch your system daily; note simple observations such as solution color changes, steam, leaks, oil slicks, blocked nozzles, etc.  Observational data is a cheap and simple tool to use to prevent profit loss and learn about your metal finishing process.

Chemical Measurements

  1. Next, begin to chemically measure your solutions on a regular basis. Many of the manufacturing facilities I call on do not measure their solutions, do not measure all of their solutions, or only measure some of their control limits on any one solution. For example, they may measure the time, temp, & concentration, but not the pH of their acid zinc plating bath. They tell me what they have been told for decades, “plating is an art form” (a popular metal finishing tribal knowledge slogan), which I understand to be somewhat true.  But do what you can do to reduce the number of artistic liberties in your line operator’s common practices to better your chances for success day in and day out.  Most suppliers’ technical data bulletins contain the basic instructions on how to measure and control their solutions.

It is important to realize though, typically the recommendations on a lot of these TDB’s are generic controls, especially when referring to cleaning TDB’s – it is not law, but it is a good place to start for the greatest chances of success in your finishing operation.  You may have an environmental reason or condition you are operating the bath outside the manufacturer’s recommendation.  Remember, before you tear down the fence, remember why it was put up in the first place.  Your supplier should be helpful and work along side you in this area.