Learning from history

I am writing this article as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon by Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. I remember the excitement it generated. Although we did not own a television at the time, we went to a neighbour’s house, next door but one, to watch the event (or at least watch the replay). As a young child, it was easy to be inspired by the achievement. Homemade dens became lunar modules, with imaginary technology, obviously, and the thought of eating all meals direct from the packaging was amazing. There was no scare about processed food in those days!

In June this year, we remembered a different event: the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While it shared some of the same characteristics of planning, organisation and application of technology, it differed significantly in that a lot more individuals were affected and there were many more individual stories to provide an insight into their contributions and emotions. A common theme was a sense of duty to colleagues and to the country. The Apollo moon landings are remembered through individual astronauts, such as Armstrong and Aldrin, yet they too were only successful through a collective effort, which started with the challenge issued by President Kennedy.

History did not inspire me at school; I dropped it in favour of geography and the sciences. Ironically, when I look at my own history, I see that I was always reading articles and books and watching programmes about history, something that I continue to do. The study of history requires the identification of sources of information, the assessment of their reliability and then inferring what happened and why. It develops skills of problem solving, which are transferable to any number of disciplines.

A major benefit of studying history is that we can learn lessons from what has gone before: we can avoid making the same mistakes that others have made and we can apply techniques and processes that have been shown to be successful. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, ‘history repeats itself’ and we constantly fail to learn the lessons. In recent sporting events, lack of fitness has been identified as contributing to lack of success. Why? In business, companies fail because they make the same mistakes as those that have failed before. In The Sunday Times on 23 June, Luke Johnson wrote a column titled: ‘Want to get ahead today? Start by learning the lessons of yesterday’. He refers the reader to the play, Lehman Trilogy, and a book, The Enlightened Capitalists by James O’Toole. Military history, even recent history, throws up many examples of where the lessons of previous events have not been taken into account. However, while we can identify what worked and what did not from a study of the past, it does not always follow that repeating what was successful will deliver success in the present. Circumstances and environments change and these need to be considered before deciding on any course of action. Again, military history provides the clue with the derivation of the saying that generals always fight the last war.

So, how does the NDT profession fare? NDT has a rich and interesting history. From the early developments of the various methods and techniques, the formation of the professional institute and the rationalisation of certification, to the more recent development and adoption of advanced technology. Have we learnt the lessons this history provides? I would suggest that we have probably not taken sufficient advantage of these lessons. As I wrote in my article last month, I think we could improve in knowledge management so as we can be aware of what has been done before. I have also written, and presented, about the benefits that can accrue from addressing reliability, as illustrated by historic failures and identified by historic research. Yet, this is not widely adopted. I believe that we have yet to fully reconcile NDT practical application with the theoretical knowledge that underpins it: something that is a consequence of the history of NDT.

It is not all doom and gloom, as there are a number of initiatives that do incorporate lessons from history. The development of the NDT apprenticeships and the new work-based MSc will go a long way to addressing the latter schism. Back in January 2018, I related how Casper Wassink confirmed, in his thesis, that the time span to produce a new NDT product, starting from an idea, is on average 30 years. Now we have a new initiative, the NDT Technology Taskforce, to improve the transfer of new NDT technology into industry and, hopefully, to reduce this gestation period. See page 3 of July’s issue of NDT News for more details. Alternatively, for information or to express an interest, please email: iain.baillie@rolls-royce.com. Here is the perfect opportunity to learn the lessons of history and take action, informed by them, in the context of current and future circumstances.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX.
Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@woodplc.com

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