“Durable Assets” and keeping them durable

I’ve been having a little dilemma the last week or so, thanks to technology. This dilemma has reaffirmed my belief that today’s society has fewer and fewer tangible things to pass along to future generations. Way back in 2001 “a million years ago,” I was stationed at RAF Molesworth in England, and thought it would be a cool idea to take my kids to Paris, let them experience a little history and go to Disneyland there. I took a million pictures and put them on a CD in a web page format so they’d have descriptions and some sense of organization. Then I burned a bunch of copies of the CD to share with friends and family. I also kept a few of those CDs for myself so they’d be archived for the future. Back then, CD’s were promised to last “99 years,” so I figured they’d at be around until I could find a more durable medium. Boy was I wrong! Last week, I pulled out the Paris CD’s to share a few pics with people, and guess what….they’re not readable. They’ve been well cared for, kept out of light, heat, cold, in a book, and so on, and there’s barely any useful data left on them. To top that off, I still don’t see a more durable medium to store those pics. If I can get them recovered I’m going to just spend the money and have them printed, and go back to the “20th Century” method.

This brings back my thought of how things made now are less and less durable as technology advances. My Ford tractor made in 1954 still runs and works beautifully (along with millions just like it), and yet very little made by Ford (or anyone else) today will be useful in 60 years. Technology is great when it comes to moving toward the future, but it brings very little investment in durability. Those of us spending thousands on cell phones, computers, and software every few years are living proof! This is all money dumped into a hole with no long term promise. It’s all for NOW.

There is one area of technology that brings a little promise, though. The world of metals has come a long way since blacksmiths made horseshoes for a living (though old sword-making techniques will never be matched). Nowadays there are a million different metal alloys, and each is designed to be durable in its own intended environment. New up and coming alloys will likely change the world as we know it. They’ll be lighter, stronger, less prone to corrosion and warping, and they might even cost less. The jury is out on whether they’ll be recyclable, but we can assume it’s likely in one form or another.

An every day challenge for me is figuring out what alloys I’m dealing with, and how they should be welded. There are hundreds of different steel alloys, and a comparable number of aluminum and stainless alloys. Then there’s magnesium, brass, copper, bronze, and so on, all with different alloys. To top it off, some manufacturers make their own alloys. Some of them range from really awesome to no better than pot metal. The problem here is, when welding a piece of metal you should use filler rods of similar composition, and use the right technique to prevent cracking and warping. It’s very hard to look at a piece of metal that’s aged, weathered, corroded, and sometimes plated or painted, and make a decision as to what procedure to use.

I have a friend named Dan who’s a welding engineer, and he’s a very good example of how to prepare for the welding world. He reads and researches things constantly, and develops a working knowledge of almost everything. If you ask him a question he knows the answer or where to find it. While I’m nowhere close to Dan when it comes to welding knowledge, I’ve worked my whole life to know as much as I can about pretty much everything I do. I maintain a working knowledge of my own and aim to apply it to problems my customers bring to me.

One example is a call I received last week. A machinist is making a knife out of 440 stainless, with a handle from 304 stainless, and another piece from 301 stainless. I had talked him out of using 303 stainless, because in quite a few cases metals that are easy to machine are a big problem for welding, this being one of them. The bigger point here is there are really three DIFFERENT metals in this equation. Each has its own factors when it comes to welding, and they all have different alloy composition. In other words, you can’t just walk up to it and start welding without using your head first.

So I asked him to give me a bit to look these metals up and hopefully develop a procedure that would work. Luckily, without 303 stainless in the equation, there are filler metals made that can make the bond between these metals, if the right consderation is given to each of them during preparation and heat treating. I wouldn’t have been able to give this customer a good answer if I hadn’t developed a working knowledge of metallurgy on the front side.

As complicated as this may sound, it was really simple compared to situations in the field, where I just don’t know what I’m dealing with. Sometimes I have to experiment a little to see what I’m up against and make adjustments from there. I hate doing that unless there are scraps of similar metal laying around, but sometimes there’s just no choice. Luckily over the years I’ve only had two pieces of metal fool me, but there’s still time and new alloys are hitting the market every day. I have to keep learning or I’ll fall behind.

I built a big barbecue grill from 1/4″ diamond plate steel a couple of years ago. It weighs 750 lbs, and I hope it will last at least 50 years. With good care it could last 100 or more years of daily use. It’s going to be ongoing proof that metal technology will last a lot longer than those digital pictures. I hope my grandkids will understand the difference too.