The Cadmium Candle Problem: The Creative Challenges of Modern Manufacturing


German psychologist Karl Duncker famously challenged students and other test subjects to attach a candle to a wall using only a book of matches and small box of thumbtacks, so that the candle could be lit without wax dripping onto the table.

Some people would melt a bit of the side of the candle to adhere it to the wall, others would try to embed the tack in the candle and subsequently to the wall. Neither works.

The task, which has been administered to thousands of subjects, is a problem-solving challenge that relies on participants to overcome “functional fixedness.” To be successful, participants must stop seeing the box as a container for the tacks, and see it as a cardboard platform for the candle. Creativity, Duncker believed, was the capacity to overcome the blinders that teach us what things are for, and imbue familiar objects with new purpose and unforeseen possibilities.

The Cadmium Problem

One of the greatest metaphorical candle problems of the modern economy is cadmium plating. Cadmium has some unique physical properties that make it especially useful as a plating to protect precision-machined parts from corrosion. Once a machined part is expertly coated in cadmium, that part resists corrosion, is highly solderable and compatible with other metals, and requires little lubrication.

Cadmium is also an extremely toxic compound, comparable to nuclear weapons in its capacity to poison people and render the environment uninhabitable. Over the past decade, numerous attempts by federal regulators to remove hazardous materials from the environment have targeted cadmium. Executive orders regulating its use have been enacted and revoked, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) monitor its toxic and carcinogenic impacts on people, water, and soil.

At least for now, industrial cadmium use can’t be eliminated. While the federal government makes it very difficult and expensive to use cadmium, other agencies simultaneously require that cadmium be used, most notably on military aircraft, weapons, and saltwater craft.

So while environmental regulators recognize the toxic and carcinogenic risks that cadmium-plated parts pose, defense contractors are frequently required by the technical specifications of a contract to apply cadmium-plating to the parts they produce for the government. No replacement coating offers the same high performance and the U.S. military is the number one specifier of this coating in its designs.

Mandatory Inefficiency

Fewer and fewer metal plating vendors offer cadmium plating. Most shops are unwilling to bear the cost of complying with dozens of EPA and OSHA standards. Employees must undergo routine blood tests to monitor exposure, and constant inspections make it difficult to operate efficiently.

The intricate process of electroplating with cadmium is limited in the United States – the lesser environmental restrictions and lower costs push this function overseas unless it’s explicitly required to be domestic, as in the case of the U.S. military. The chemicals are difficult to use, difficult to obtain, and require liability insurance and extensive site inspections. Only with a patchwork of special waivers and political favors do American manufacturers stay in compliance.

As compliant cadmium plating facilities dwindle, the price and lead-times for cadmium plating increases for all manufacturers whose military and aerospace specifications actually require cadmium plating. Substituting zinc or alloy (inferior) plating without explicit approval isn’t an option and once an aircraft or weapon system design has been locked and certified, no one wants to take responsibility for approving any deviation.  Ironically, millions of man-hours in both government and industry pull against one another, with public funds simultaneously fighting to protect the environment from cadmium and others specifying and requiring the use of cadmium.

The Intellectual Horizons of Practical Manufacturing

The regulatory response to cadmium’s dangers has prolonged its use and inhibited innovation which could have solved the problem. Promising research on environmentally sustainable cadmium alternatives is underway, thanks to public-private partnerships. Potential profit and institutional investment bring together research teams consisting of academics, environmental researchers, engineers, chemists, and industrialists are testing potential alternatives. Partnerships between NASA, Boeing, Dipsol, and defense department strategists are stress-testing potential replacements. Promising research is also perfecting technology to clean soil and water of the industrial wastes we’re still paying to produce.

The challenges facing American manufacturers aren’t those of sheer efficiency or even material abundance. Algorithms and automation will drive our productivity for the foreseeable future. The true challenges for which we must prepare our minds and our organizations – the candle problems of overcoming expectations and myopia – make manufacturing part of the thought economy.

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