Life lessons from the Cummins Engine familiarization class

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Two things became abundantly clear to me during the Cummins Engine Familiarization class I took recently in Columbus, Ind. First, the modern diesel engine is an engineering marvel – and I’m not just saying that because I work for Cummins. I thought I had an appreciation for the complexity before I took the class. But after tearing apart and rebuilding the kind of diesel engine that might power a tractor-trailer with my 11 classmates I now understand why so many engineers love working on our engines.

Cummins employees get to be an engineer for a day.
Cummins employees get to be an engineer for a day.

And the second thing I learned is that under no circumstances should I be allowed to work on a lawnmower engine let alone a 6 cylinder, 15 Liter diesel. I’m a writer by trade and after two days working on the engine I’m convinced that no amount of training would enable me to lie on my back under a truck and service an engine that weighs more than a half ton. Just lifting the rods (see, I learned something!) would be a good workout for me.

So here’s a little background on the class. I’ve been aware of it since I joined Cummins in 2008 but for one reason or another I never signed up for it although I’ve always heard it’s very good and hard to get into. I lucked into a spot when one of the lawyers in our Indianapolis office had a scheduling conflict.

The class welcomes non-engineers. My class, for example, had five lawyers and an intern from the Law Department in addition to myself. Our instructor, Rodney Nicholson, was great at explaining complex engine terms in ways we could understand. He is a self-described car nut who owns something like a dozen vehicles. He also grew up on a farm so he has all kinds of experience with a variety of engines.

I think my biggest take away was how complex the engine has become in the last 20 years or so, especially with the advent of emissions control. The introduction of Cooled Exhaust Gas Recirculation in 2002, Diesel Particulate Filters in 2007 and Selective Catalytic Reduction in 2010 combined with the use of electronic controls and sensors throughout the engine and after treatment have turned the diesel engine into a piece of very high-tech machinery.

All of the basic requirements of combustion – oxygen, heat and fuel – are now delivered extremely precisely thanks to what are essentially little computers so the engine will generate power in a way that when paired with our after treatment results in near-zero emissions.

For a video I was working on several years ago I interviewed an engineer at the Company with a PhD who said he chose working for Cummins over NASA.  I kind of dismissed that statement at the time, but now I fully understand what he was talking about.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to grab a wrench and get to work. I’m a big believer in what Clint Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan said in the 1973 movie “Magnum Force” about a man knowing his limitations (I know I’m dating myself here).

I wanted to help, however, so I started to remove the rockers which are part of the fuel injection assembly. Somehow I didn’t get the particular part, which was a little over a foot long, level and suddenly parts started spilling into the engine and onto the floor.

Now this is a big deal in Engine Familiarization class.  If you have too few or too many parts at the end of rebuilding the engine you have to go back and tear it down again to figure out what happened.  Nothing will make you more popular than forcing the whole class to stay late on a Friday!

Thankfully, we found all the parts I managed to drop, but if you are wondering why the guy with gray hair and glasses in the picture above this blog seems to be standing so far from the engine, well, now you know.


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  • Amberly Peterson says:
    July 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm Reply

    This seems like a really cool class. I’d like to take it. I know nothing about engines. At all. I imagine I would also be standing at arms length from the engine.

  • Jane Bujanovich says:
    July 30, 2013 at 10:22 am Reply

    The young man on the right looks like Paul Bujanovich, my Mechanical Engineer!!

  • Carlton Bale says:
    August 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm Reply

    For any employees interested in taking the class, please contact Charlotte Frazier-bey via Lotus Notes for more details.

  • Matthew Wasson says:
    August 5, 2013 at 3:24 pm Reply

    I agree with the author that our modern diesel engines are amazing! I, too am a non-technical person who has a hard time not breaking my motorized lawn equipment every time I try to do maintenance on them. While I had a good time in the class, my greatest learning was an appreciation for what our service technicians deal with every day in our distributor and dealer shops. Diagnosing and repairing any kind of engine involves a great amount of skill and applied knowledge. Our techs make it look easy and are too often only recognized when something goes wrong. We need more smart & “handy” young people to go into careers as diesel technicians so we can “Enable our Customers’ Success by Unleashing the Power of Cummins”!

  • Joan Allman says:
    August 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm Reply

    When is the next class?


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