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What Does It All Mean?

Jan. 17, 2020
Metalcasting as a process is well-defined — but metalcasting as a concept or a project is an open discussion, open to a new context of technological and commercial opportunities.

A few years ago, pressed to give a shorthand explanation for FM&T’s annual Idea Book project, I offered that it is collection of “innovations and trends” happening in metalcasting process technologies, meaning molding, melting, pouring, and a dozen or so more of the discrete production steps involved in the delivery of a casting. It’s still a useful notation for what we set out to present every January, but semantically it’s beginning to trouble me.

“Innovations” is being overused and thereby emptied of its true meaning, something that happens to perfectly good words when the they’re misapplied in order to get a response from readers and listeners, rather than to express what is truly being conveyed. Similarly, a “trend” can be any decision that gets copied twice, with or without attribution. It is whatever the speaker implies.

The point is that the meaning of words, and the meaning of “meaning” is shifting around us, and within us. Now, a “solution” means just about anything a writer or speaker wants it to mean, but only rarely does it mean “the way to fix some difficult or pressing problem,” which is what almost every reader or listener would have understood “solution” to mean before a decade or so of misappropriation. 

The odd thing is that I recall I first chose “innovation” to be precise about the new metalcasting concepts we aim to present, and to avoid exaggeration with an alternative like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary idea.” We believe our Idea Book is compelling for metalcasting readers, and we want them to trust our judgment on such matters.

The fact is that words change because of how we use them. Using them properly and effectively is one of the ways people become successful — personally, socially, and commercially successful. 

But words are not currency: We cannot hoard or spend or invest them. Their value is in how we understand and apply them. They inform us and they enrich us. They belong to everyone. The effective use of language is a resource and a responsibility. Misapplying words and language is a risk that may be worth taking for artists and entertainers, but most of us must communicate clearly or be penalized. I flinch when I read or hear someone use “gift” as a verb and “invite” as a noun; I want to correct them, but that’s the language we have in 2020, and not acknowledging this carries the risk of being too far ahead or too far behind what is actually happening around us.

What is actually happening in metalcasting, and across the manufacturing landscape, is that the developments we might have labeled “revolutionary” three or five years ago are underway and proving their viability. As a result, the metalcasting industry is becoming less easily defined by the discrete production processes we notionally understand: the entire sequence from design to finishing is becoming faster and more coordinated, with more recourse to new functions and technologies. In this transition we realize now we are no longer considering the manufacturing of products but the coordination of processes for customers. The metalcasting production process is transitioning into an extension of the supply chain.

And so, the “ideas” we present in our Idea Book for 2020 may well be past the point of being innovative. Several of them may be “trendy”, but more because they confirm for us how metalcasting is changing — not how it is being changed. These are ideas that point metalcasters toward ways they can accelerate and optimize their activities, coordinating or synchronizing what they do with the customers that will receive their cast products.

What’s happening to metalcasting is what is happening to all of manufacturing. It is escaping from ideas that have defined it, about how production should be done or will be done, and implanting itself in the new context of ideas that synchronize production with technological and commercial opportunities. It’s eluding past labels and availing itself of present possibilities.  Like the language we use it is changing, and it’s changing us.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)