Experts and expertise

Jan. 22, 2010
In a world where the opinions of experts have replaced expertise, serious problems have become abstractions that we discuss, and try to learn to live with

It’s always exciting to present an issue full of new ideas and insights, as we set out to do each January. This month, it’s also more than a little encouraging, after a year of doubt and confusion, to read about so many new and relevant ideas, presented so clearly. From sand processing through product testing, the range metalcasting processes ensures that there are endless opportunities for improvement.

Metalcasting, as a science, as an art, as an industry, has been in practice and in development for centuries: changes don’t happen suddenly. Naturally, the changes that take hold can be understood to have been well considered, well tested, and well reviewed. And, once they are accepted these developments can be critical to the success of foundries and diecasters, to the companies and communities they support, and in fact to all humanity.

All this incremental progress is the result of individuals’ achievements. They’re engineers, researchers, and technicians, but most important they are business people who know that the value of good ideas is never understood until they’re proven. Writing about a good idea, talking about it to colleagues is meaningless unless the idea has been demonstrated. Ingenuity may bring notoriety, but expertise is earned by pursuing an idea to its practical result. And, it isn’t just the idea that gets proven: so, too, does the author. Proving an idea, testing its limits, and demonstrating its effectiveness is how experience is gained and trust is earned.

All of this is very reassuring. Our invitations to metalcasters and suppliers to share their new process ideas elicited dozens of replies, proving how prolific the industry continues to be. Some ideas fail and some take years to gain acceptance, but it is impossible to doubt the vitality of a market that continues to encourage so many fresh insights.

Yet, as 2010 starts metalcasting is an industry undergoing a profound structural change. It is growing more sophisticated globally, more concentrated domestically. The grand plan (if there is one) remains obscure, and spare financial resources and uncertain industrial and consumer demand will mean that it will not be clear soon. But, the ideas that will define a strong and flexible industry are in development, and falling into place.

From this perspective, the metalcasting industry stands apart from the wider world. Metalcasting companies may not be thriving, but it’s an industry that understands its own strengths and resources. It addresses problems pragmatically. It doesn’t question its basic principles. It is seeking to make its processes and products better, not to reinvent them.

Contrast that approach to what has been on display in the broader world of business and industry, and it’s hard to locate a similar degree of determination and confidence. Metalcasters share the same uncertainties that have made all of manufacturing so problematic in recent years: What can we do to regain market share? Where will we find the leaders and workers to carry on our businesses? Who will finance our plans? How will we locate the energy to power our operations?

Demand, human resources, capital, energy. Each one of these is a real concern for manufacturers, obviously. But, in a world where the opinions of “experts” have replaced expertise, these have become abstractions. They’re just problems we’re trying to learn to live with. An expanding thicket of regulations that define trade, finance, industry, and education invariably ties up pragmatic solutions.

Over the past year, experts have been propounding grand ideas for financial reform, economic recovery, job creation, and more. These schemes and theories aren’t just talk. They’re diversions that add more to each individual’s confusion than to general understanding. And our lack of understanding transforms easily into anxiety, especially over the past year. The alternative should be obvious: avoid big ideas. Address problems at an appropriate scale, with seriousness, common sense, and diligence. That’s the way to achieve progress.