Hunting for the Elephant Cloaking Device “OFF” Switch

During most of the last two decades of my Welding Engineering career, I’ve been searching for the “OFF” switch on the Elephant Cloaking Device.  95% of manufacturing companies lack the high profitability and the growth into market dominance which could be theirs, by turning off the cloaking device that hides their true core business, and embracing the elephant-sized key to profitable market dominance.  Manufacturing companies may think they are in appliances, or implements, or vehicles, or equipment, or devices, or actuators… just name it.  But they are really in the welding industry. Automotive is a perfect example: simply removing welding and brazing from a vehicle leaves nothing but a useless pile of disconnected and non-functional small sub-assemblies – and yet the entire automotive industry seems blind to that fact. It’s pervasive, and it’s top-down.

The “cloaked elephant” in most of the metal-manufacturing industries is that their actual core business is selling their expertise at manufacturing complex welded assemblies.  Because this elephant is cloaked, staff cannot see and grasp that their core success is inherently and tightly linked to the permeating depth and breadth of the scientific welding expertise that’s woven throughout their organizational structure… or, far more likely, is missing entirely.  One major supplier, a “household name” within automotive, is manufacturing complex welded system assemblies in dozens of countries without one single welding engineer, anywhere.  Lack of welding expertise was the overwhelming cause of a major “quality spill” that may have cost them over $50M, and is the reason they are probably doomed to repeat their losses.

The sad truth is that few manufacturers of welded metal assemblies understand and embrace their core business. Even amongst “world class” companies, there is rarely a discussion of world class welding.  How can they talk about Continuous Improvement, and leave welding out of the picture?  It’s due to invisibility – causing an inability for normal sight to see, just as if they were blind.  In the vast majority of companies, the costly lack of welding expertise is the manufacturing lesson rarely seen and never learned.

Even though it should be painfully obvious, the lack of welding expertise is typically as invisible to upper management and executive staff as a sci-fi warplane or starship that’s hidden by a “cloaking device”.  The welding “starship” has the immense and unequalled power of “otherworldly” knowledge in the applied physics of the universe, yet it’s cloaked in the invisibility of those complex physics, always evading management visibility, nearly completely untapped and uncomprehended – the stuff of legends, heroes, and world domination or rescue.  But why?  For years I’ve puzzled over the reasons for this top-down invisibility, and I’ve drawn some conclusions…

One reason is the manufacturing incompetence of most MBA programs: they rarely teach that the core profitability of manufacturing rests in the brilliance of engineering expertise applied to product design, process design and continuous improvement.   Instead, they teach that the machine operators are the ones who make money for the company.  It’s nonsensical that someone who can be trained in 2 hours, or 2 days, or 2 weeks or 2 months, is the one who makes money for the company, while an engineer with 4 or 6 years of formal scientific training and a 2-4 year learning curve in the company is just “overhead” that can be jettisoned whenever “cost savings” pressures mount – instead of leveraging their expertise to save ten times their salary.  It’s nonsensical business lunacy!  But the opportunity is equally as crazy.  By emerging from the MBA-degree fantasy into the real manufacturing world of welded products, most companies could chart their way into substantial success, even into leading their marketplace and dominating it for decades.

A key reason for this MBA and staff blindness is that that most industries and metalworking processes were developed long before welding and brazing became part of the manufacturing process: these welding inventions were controversial rarities in the 1930’s, which didn’t gain much traction until WWII made their adoption essential for survival.  Before welding and brazing, the joining was done by bolting, riveting, forging, pinning, and other design variants.  Industry management wouldn’t think of putting “bolt here” on a drawing without fully defining the hole, the geometry, the fasteners, and the installation procedure – yet they don’t think twice about having a “weld” arrow with zero definition for its’ far more complex molten joining process. In many cases not even the welding process is defined on the drawing, much less any criteria for it. Why such a huge disconnect?

The inclusion of welding and brazing in industry has come slowly, in stages of one to four decades long, with little comprehension of the complex physics and sciences that are inherent. The earthmoving industry is one of the bright exceptions, which adopted and emphasized welding and welding engineering expertise while earthmoving equipment was still in it’s infancy.  In that industry, Welding Engineers are courted, developed, recognized, empowered, and rewarded for their unique ability to comprehend, lead and improve complex manufacturing processes that include welding. That’s a jolt to most industry management and HR staff.  Just as shocking: earthmoving industry suppliers are graded on how extensively their welding operations, processes, training and quality are guided by qualified welding engineers.

But since few companies make earthmoving equipment, it’s not surprising to find the prevalent industrial leadership of weld-blind managers and executives who are completely unqualified to make technical decisions and chart a strategic technical direction in welding.  This can take the more obvious form of MBA’s making technical decisions, or far less obviously when non-welding engineers are making the welding decisions.  In both instances, the fundamental profit-deadly and failure-strategy problem is that the decision makers have little or no training in the welding sciences.

We quickly comprehend that we don’t want a brilliant electrical engineer, or even a chemist with several patents, to substitute for our heart surgeon.  Yet we don’t grasp that an executive who’s making welding decisions is typically as unqualified as a heart surgeon: it has nothing to do with intellectual brilliance, dedication or authority, and everything to do with a unique cross-trained engineering aptitude empowered by extensive scientific education that’s applied practically.

Those who have succeeded brilliantly in executive leadership roles, the benchmark historical examples, are those who have demonstrated a purposed decision to recognize and surround themselves with expertise in any core areas they lack which are vital to long-term strategic market dominance.  This is known and documented.  Yet “higher education” institutions seem generally unable to comprehend and teach this critical principle in the business-management realm of manufacturing. Thus, very few companies have development and sustainability plans for vital engineering expertise. In fact, executives are more likely to mentally connect “sustainability” to environmental policies rather than to profitable market domination through the planned succession and strengthening of engineering expertise in core business areas.

For example in most automated manufacturing of welded metal products, industrial engineering, design engineering, information technology, controls engineering and welding engineering are the essential core engineering expertise areas.  The widespread blindness of executive staff is revealed by how remarkably few companies recognize most of those as essential core expertise areas.  Rather than seeking and building a team of expertise to dominate their market, most executives take a starvation-staffing approach based on a few jack-of-all-trades people who excel in can-do workaholic attitudes and exhibit a broad skill-base in mediocrity that is focused to maintain product-shipping norms: “continuous improvement” is a distant fantasy.

How severe is this blindness?  It’s stunning on many levels.  Take for example the most common welding process used in manual or automated welding: GMAW (or MIG/MAG).  Most company cultures think they change one or two variables in their welding processes on a daily basis.  Most welding engineers think their company changes two to four variables, while the actual number is five to eight.  Less than 5% of welding engineers have realized that there are 16 process variables in GMAW welding, that several are interactively modifying other variables, and that if you include pulse waveforms and arc-start/arc-ending variables, those account for an additional 25 to 50 variables.  A Smart Welding Engineer can lead, develop and mentor them into a team of world-class excellence, but most welding engineers will end their careers with little opportunity for such mentorship.

What’s behind this blindness?  What’s at the root of it?  There are several causative factors at play.

Ironically, part of the problem is from within the American Welding Society, which has long winked at or even repeated the claim to industry outsiders that “welding is easy”, instead of stripping it butt-naked as a total fallacy.  But condoning the “easy” myth is understandable in a pragmatic sense.  After all, with so many people, you have to keep telling them that welding is “easy” so that you can keep spoon-feeding their infancy, bite by bite, until they finally reach welding toddlership where they can feed themselves snack foods and go potty by themselves without relying on someone else to clean up the smelly embarrassment.  The problem with the decades of AWS winking is that company executives walk around as naked of welding knowledge as the proverbial emperor, while every Smart Welding Engineer can look at that company and see their executive nudity.

Yet another AWS obstacle is that the value and skillsets of welders has been overemphasized, while the role of Welding Engineers has been ignored or downplayed.  The interplay between these two groups of welding experts is somewhat like the difference between football offense and defense:  winning teams require skill in both arenas, yet the importance and the role of each group is largely dependent on the competitive environment they face.  In code fabrication, the relationship and role of welders and welding engineers is very different than in the competition of automated manufacturing welding.

Another problem is that welding complexities are historically “pushed out” of discussion by impatient executives and managers who do not comprehend welding expertise as a critical core business expertise.  So welding complexities are pushed out into the “welding shop”, or pushed out of the plant into an upstream supplier who is more cost effective or more quality-consistent.  Either way, “skilled trades” or “suppliers” are then responsible for welding, so that the executives/managers/engineers don’t have to understand welding, much less develop and hold welding science as a core competency in their company. And this push-out is modeled to and learned by the next generation of management, so that the missing essential of core welding competency is never recognized as a vital strategic business need.

Speaking of competency, who is competent in welding?  Most company’s welding processes are established, supported and changed on the basis of tribal knowledge blended with welding mythology and oral history, guided by best guesses and informal polls conducted over lunch or smoking breaks.  Doesn’t that sound like a scenario that’s ripe for competitive dominance based on educated science?  Isn’t it fertile ground for a new collection of case-history legends in business?  Unfortunately, a key problem in over 90% of companies is that executives not only don’t know whose welding opinions they can trust, but they may not have anyone in the company at all who is worthy of that trust.  Once they conclude that they can’t trust the opinions, it’s an easy habit to make the decisions themselves, or trust their foxy welding supplier to manage their welding chicken coup… just like most of their competitors’ executives who also don’t realize they’re in a life and death competition that only rewards the skillful use of physics in knowledgeable welding operations.

This leads to a professionally painful abuse of welding engineering: when their educated expertise is repeatedly pushed aside as if their opinion is only an armpit that smells worse than an unqualified manager or maintenance tech with a political advantage, yet knowing their family life will suffer from the results created, it can become a powerful motivator to leave one blind company for the glimmer of hope in another.

Vast profitability awaits any company executive who can comprehend this, turn off the “cloaking device” in their company, and execute a plan for competent welding excellence in two to five years.  Hint: It requires hiring at least one Smart Welding Engineer (probably more) and empowering them from the floor to the boardroom.  There are dozens of senior welding engineers who are experienced in creating excellence and would love to create and manage such success for your company.  You only need to find, hire, and empower them.  Takers, anyone?

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