What a Collapsing Bridge Taught Us About Continuing Education

Robroy specializes in anti-corrosion products, which generally are installed in applications that “have imperative.” Whether it’s corrosion resistant non-electrified electric systems, fiberglass liners that go inside oil field tubulars, or fiberglass enclosures that house electronic and electrical and data equipment, Robroy made it.

When I say the products “have imperative,” it means that failure is a very expensive proposition. Take a paper mill, for example. Making paper starts off with water and wood chips, and the paper is created in one continuous process until you get a roll of paper 27 feet wide and 5 tons at the other end. It costs about a billion dollars to install and commission.

So if you have a part that corrodes underneath this huge mammoth thing and it causes the system to break down, you’re in a bit of a pickle.

By “pickle,” I mean you’re up Biological Effluent Creek without a form of locomotion. So product and material selection become imperative for any designer. They need products that won’t deteriorate or corrode at inopportune moments., such as two-thirds of the way into making a 9 yard, 5-ton roll of paper.

What I Learned from the Story of Galloping Gertie

Tacoma Bridge Collapse - A good case study justification for continuing education
The Tacoma Narrow Bridge Collapse in 1940.
Studies of major engineering disasters have found that 34% of the time, these disasters were not a function of the designer being stupid or incompetent. It was just the fact that the designer did not know about certain issues, or had a lack of information about the products and systems that were needed or available.

One example would be the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, better known as Galloping Gertie. (You can see some rather frightening footage on YouTube.)

Leon Moiseff, a fairly well-known bridge engineer, was tasked to design the bridge. However, in those days, no one knew anything about aeroelastic flutter, which meant the bridge rocked and bucked in the high winds, and collapsed four months after it was completed. Moiseff had designed other famous bridges, but the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse overshadowed them all, and he died three years after it fell.

Being a student of history, and always willing to learn from it whenever I can, I realized we had our own industry’s major problems: corrosion.

Being a small company that focused on creating the best products available, our question was how do you communicate the problems and solutions of corrosion with the design and engineering communities, irrespective of the industry?

In 1996, we created a three-pronged plan that would help us educate the industry and ensure that our products continued to be seen as one of the market’s best.

First, we ensured that our products were accredited by as many relevant authorities as possible so that we would have more accreditations than any competitor’s.

Second, we created an education program called Corrosion College that would help people understand the differences in the various products so that it improved their ability to select material for their applications that would have imperative.

Third, we had to do it in such a way as to not only give them knowledge but reward them in a professional way. Every licensed professional has to have continuing education credits (CEUs) every year to continue their licensing standard, including engineers and designers. That meant our program had to be accredited so the individual who attended would be able to satisfy their annual continuing education requirements.

Finally, it had to be designed in such a way that it was also entertaining so that when people actually left the Corrosion College, they had not only learned something, but they had fun doing it.

Initially, it was like herding chickens to get our people to develop the various modules for the course. A lot of egos got in the way and it needed someone who would be absolutely dogged in their pursuit of getting it done.

Smittee Root, one of the women on our marketing team, was that someone. She navigated her way through all of the mire. She persuaded, cajoled, and badgered everyone to get their modules finished and polished to the point where we finally had a finished product. She edited and tested everything, and got all of our information accredited as well. It was accredited by Purdue University in Indiana and Kilgore College, a couple hours east of Dallas.

Smittee was also one of the very first faculty members of Corrosion College. And when it became a standalone brand, she was the Director. She also qualified other faculty members who would have to meet the standards we — well, she — had set for the experience.

Some of the men in the company were actually threatened by Smittee’s work, and had their own opinions about how the thing should be run. And they weren’t shy about telling her why her way wouldn’t work and that she should follow their ideas. Some of them even sulked if their opinion wasn’t adopted, and I ended up firing a couple of them because they made her job too difficult.

But Smittee plowed on and got it launched. She invited corrosion engineers and production managers from our customers and potential customers, and brought in experts to teach classes on corrosion prevention and pipe maintenance. She taught them how to solve and prevent their main corrosion problems, even if it sometimes involved not using our products.

Corrosion College started 21 years ago, and it’s still going on today. It’s a 2-day course on corrosion, and it’s something that anyone in any related industry can take part in. They have professionals from the oil and gas industry, plus several other industries, who attend the course so they can make sure they’re buying the right pipes and conduits to use with the right products.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: U.S. Government archive photo (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.