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A Tale of Two 90-Year-Olds

Steve Plumb
By Steve Plumb Senior Editor, SME Media

By most measures, 1932 was not a good year. In fact, it would be better described as miserable. The Great Depression was at its height, with the Dow Jones bottoming out at 41.22, and the seeds for World War II were germinating.

But there were at least a couple of bright spots—thanks to a pair of enterprising innovators who turned economic hardships into opportunities. In Denmark, Ole Kirk Kristiansen—a 30-year-old carpenter whose woodworking business went bankrupt—pivoted to making inexpensive wooden toys. That business became the Lego Group—Lego is short for the Danish words Leg godt, or “play well.”

Success didn’t come easily. In the early days, Kristiansen sometimes had to trade the toys he produced for food. In addition to the depression, he survived the Nazi occupation of Denmark, as well as an electrical fire that wiped out his complete stock and blueprints. But Kristiansen continued to invest in his dream, buying a new milling machine in the late 1930s—enabling rounder, safer edges—and adding an assembly line in 1944. Two years later, the company struck pay dirt with the purchase of an injection molding machine, which reportedly cost more than twice the company’s previous year’s profits. After much experimentation, the machine led to Lego’s now ubiquitous interlocking plastic bricks.

Another depression-era entrepreneur, Oscar Bernard “O.B.” Jones, founded the Detroit College of Applied Science, which specialized in production engineering. Jones also authored several engineering and mathematics textbooks, as well as a book of poetry and a risqué (for its time) novel.

But his true claim to fame was spearheading the founding of the American Society of Tool Engineers (ASTE). Spoiler alert: ASTE was renamed the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in 1969, and in 2013 adopted the less formal SME moniker.

Known as a diminutive giant for his slight build, Jones shunned the spotlight and recognition for his own accomplishments. When he won SME’s prestigious Joseph A. Siegel Service Award (named after the group’s first president), Jones took off on a hunting expedition in northern Michigan to avoid attending the ceremony.

But, like Kristiansen, Jones is responsible for laying the building blocks for an extraordinary organization. Both have stood the test of time, adapting as needed and sometimes driving change. SME’s legacy was evident at the recent FABTECH Expo in Atlanta. This year’s edition of the show, now in its 41st year, was chock full of new products and innovations from industry stalwarts, as well as a host of newcomers. Laser welding and additive manufacturing abounded, as did a spirit of innovation and excitement.

SME hosted its fall gala ahead of the show, celebrating its milestone anniversary and bestowing awards to 12 industry leaders. The group epitomizes Lego’s motto: “Only the best is good enough.”

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