The door of the building slid back easily on oiled rollers and the supervisor stepped inside and waved his arm. "This is it," he said to the visitors. "Big enough to take a diesel locomotive." He chuckled. "And I wouldn't be surprised to find one here. It's about the only thing we haven't fixed yet."
The structure they had just entered was the Consolidated Shops building in Dhahran, the town where the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) has its headquarters. It is big indeed. Floor space totals 60,000 feet, or one-fourth again larger than a football field. Its highest work area measures 38 feet from floor to ceiling, as tall as a three-story office building. The huge interior appears somewhat less impressive than these dimensions would indicate, however, because Consolidated Shops is divided by columns and partitions to provide separate space for an industrial arts training center, spare parts cages and specialized shops with machines able to fix anything from a diesel mud pump to a galvanometer or a stop watch.
The big building also houses office space which is the nerve center of all company maintenance and repair work in the Dhahran area except that done on aviation and vehicular transportation equipment. Here are administered the hundreds of Saudi Arab craftsmen and artisans who staff the sheet metal, welding, paint, carpentry, plumbers, heavy equipment and other shops both in the building and outside, and work at some job-site on oil-handling, industrial or residential property, keeping the district's physical plant in top physical condition.
But the Consolidated Shops building itself is the place to observe under one roof large-scale, versatile maintenance practice of a remotely-situated oil company in action. During one recent tour, for example, visitors saw a huge Clark diesel engine for driving a 500,000-watt generator being ripped down while on one side of the same building a repairman with tweezers patiently eased a tiny screw into an almost invisible hole deep within the interior of a typewriter. In another section a masked welder touched the tip of a blinding blue flame to the damaged, mud-encrusted track of a bulldozer, while in still another a watchmaker picked carefully at the delicate springs of a chronometer.
Every day during regular company working hours, which begin at 7:30 in the morning, the variety of jobs underway simultaneously at the shops creates a colorful and memorable mosaic of motion, color, sound and texture. In the electrical shop one group might be hard at work rebuilding motors, their colleagues testing starters and rewinding a generator. In an adjoining shop machinists are grinding crankshafts, refacing valves and overhauling water and oil pumps. The refrigeration section might be hard at work on anything from huge refrigerated trailers which carry frozen provisions deep into the desert for exploration crews, to office water coolers, air conditioning units, or oxygen tents for use in company medical centers. In the instrument shop at any given time there would probably be movie projectors, gauges, adding machines, scales, fuel injectors, sewing machines, and in the engine shop waiting for an overhaul there could be anything from a five-horsepower lawn mower to the 730-horsepower generator that powers Aramco's drilling barge.
In the earliest days of the company's operations, repair and maintenance in such variety were a major headache. Thousands of miles and many months away from the technicians, plants and warehouses of either the United States or Europe, Aramco engineers had to keep highly complicated and frequently delicate machinery running and in good repair in the face of the great heat and constant dust—two major enemies of all machinery—and the strictly limited supply of spare parts. Their work was made particularly difficult since eastern Saudi Arabia at that time wasn’t even on the threshold of industrialization. Depend able local distributors and skilled workers were still in the future. If an essential machine lacked parts in the early days, pioneering oilmen had two choices: fabricate the part themselves or wait long months for it to arrive from some source as much as half way around the world.
With time and planning, however, these conditions steadily improved. The Saudis, nomads and townspeople, often proved highly adaptable to the demands of the industrial age being introduced to their country, and gradually, by rigorous training, a work force of competent craftsmen and technicians began to be built up. The tiny fishing village of al-Khobar, six miles from Dhahran on the shores of the Gulf, grew into a busy trading center where astute Saudi merchants took on heavy machinery distributorships and started to stock spare parts in their own warehouses. Along with these developments, the $1.3 million Consolidated Shops building went up in 1956 near the Main Gate entrance to Dhahran.
In designing the building, Aramco’s engineers had two goals in mind: efficiency and safety, and to achieve them they departed from one of the oldest traditions of the mechanical trades: that the shops where the work is carried out must invariably be grim, dim and dirty. The Consolidated Shops is anything but that. Banks of fluorescent tubes set high in the lofty ceiling bathe the area in a white, daylight brilliance. Massive lathes, presses and drills, bolted firmly to the concrete floor, gleam with fresh forest-green paint touched with yellow—to identify moving parts—and silver—to set off the cutting edges of drills and blades. It shines too on brilliant red fire equipment, on blue-painted nitrogen tanks and on the orange paint which identifies electric outlets and switches. One visitor, struck by the Consolidated Shops’ severely clean, vividly colorful aspect, compared its appearance with the interior of one of the newest-model refrigerators.
The men who planned the Shops building, of course, had a reason other than aesthetics for specifying all that color. It is much easier to spot a tank containing nitrogen if it is painted a uniform blue. Similarly, the orange on outlets and switches gives them instant visibility. And the Consolidated Shops certainly did not pioneer the use of easily-seen red for emergency fire-fighting equipment.
Everywhere in the big building there is evidence of the company's concern for the safety of the men working there. Traffic lanes for movement of personnel and fork-lift trucks are bounded by heavy lines of yellow. Whirring blades, grinding stones and flywheels are covered by carefully prescribed shields. On jobs requiring them workers are made to wear safety goggles, gloves and shoes. By each machine lies a slatted wooden platform, placed there to relieve the strain on machinists' legs and to insure that their feet do not slip on what could be slippery concrete.
Such attention to detail marks the entire operation. Four 50-ton air conditioning units remove the extreme heat of summer from shop spaces at the rate of 600,000 BTU's (British Thermal Units) an hour for the workers' comfort. Panels of perforated, sound-absorbent aluminum sheeting muffle the high whine of drills and grinders so effectively that conversations can be carried on in normal tones. Self-propelled cranes, hanging from I-beams high above the floor, lift and move great weights at the touch of a switch, and chain hoists on swivel frames attached to steel pillars throughout the shop enable workers to jockey heavy loads or unwieldy objects onto their machines. "The shop as a whole," said the supervisor, "is as efficient as any machines we have in for repairs."
Unlike industrial companies in the United States, Aramco has never been able to go out in the local market to pick up welders, electricians, typewriter repairmen or men skilled in the dozens of other trades the company needs to keep itself operating. Until the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, there was very little demand for such specialists. Every one of the 750 or so Saudi Arabs carrying out maintenance and repairs for the company in the Dhahran area, including the 110 working in the Consolidated Shops itself, has been trained by Aramco on the job, in classes, or both.
Each working day now, 130 Saudi Arabs are given time off from their jobs for practical classroom instruction in the Industrial Training Shops section of Consolidated Shops at some trade specialties relating to their work. In regularly-scheduled courses they learn the proper use and care of hand tools and, depending on the type of work they are doing, progress from there through house-wiring, plumbing, blueprint reading and the fundamentals of electronics. As today's Saudi Arab employes move up to become shop foremen or higher or leave for retirement, Aramco is filling their ranks with skilled replacements who will take over the lathes and work benches to help keep company-supporting operations running smoothly far into the future.
William Tracy is a regular contributor to Aramco World.