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Viewpoints: Escaping Burning Platforms

Glynn Fletcher




The pressures and challenges presented by today's economy have taught all of us some very hard but nonetheless valuable lessons. The current recession has forced us to take a closer look at American manufacturing and the role it plays in our national economy. Many of the past's greatest manufacturing giants have stumbled, and some have fallen, as they failed to take the steps necessary to adapt to the changing market. It is vital that we learn from these highly visible examples, and examine what they mean for the future of manufacturing in the US.

"Burning platform" is a term coined by Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric Corp., which describes a situation where a business is forced to make changes in the face of a more ominous alternative. The story behind the term is that of the Piper Alpha, a North Sea oil platform that caught fire in the middle of the night. Rather than take his chances on the burning platform, a worker decided to jump 150' [46 m] to the freezing water below, even though debris and burning oil were floating on the surface. When a rescue team asked the worker why he jumped despite the risks, he said: "Better probable death than certain death."

So what about our own burning platforms? Innovation has been the driving force for US manufacturing since the industrial revolution. This is a nation that historically not only believed in making brave decisions to reap extraordinary rewards, but also in finding innovative ways to achieve new success. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line circumstances dampened our industrious spirit, and as a consequence we seem to have lost the fortitude that fueled our past success. In short, we have become less receptive to innovative techniques and the pursuance of technological advances. The result is an obvious lack of competitive advantage. Consequently, we are now comparable to the man on the burning platform. Our choice is to accept a certain death through choking inertia, or to exert influence over our own destiny by accepting the risks involved in doing things differently.

The evolution of machine tools is full of paradigm shifts ranging from the introduction of CNC technology to the development of highly efficient automation systems. Over the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in capability. From simultaneous five-axis machining to high-speed, high-performance mil ling, advanced processes are now available to us that were unimaginable just ten years ago. With fewer machining operations and less time and resources spent on cutting tools and workpiece fixturing, these methods allow job shops to become more productive, competitive, and profitable.

The demands on companies have reached an all-time high. Efficiency driven by the intelligent application of advanced technology is the only way to develop a new era of American manufacturing ascendancy. That said, many companies are still unwilling to take the plunge, even with the knowledge that failure to do so will mean certain death. Whether the failure to adopt new technology is due to fear, or to the mistaken perception that certain technology is too complex, expensive, or specialized to be worth the investment is not quite clear. What is clear, however, is that many have forgotten that US manufacturing set itself apart by doing things differently. American manufacturers have always pushed the envelope. But today we attempt to best the competition with "tried and true" methods and outmoded equipment. This is our burning platform.

The machine tool industry has a duty to convince manufacturers to act. It is important that we engage our customers, and explain to them the benefits of leading-edge machining technology. It is vital that we motivate them to make bold decisions despite the risks involved. And it is crucial that everyone understands, from the job shop to the original equipment manufacturer, that a lack of competitive advantage is certain death for us all. The only way to avoid it is to be brave in our capital investment decisions, to take the plunge.


This article was first published in the November 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 11/1/2009

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