Magazine article Management Today

The Sharp End: Inside the Glass Crucible

Magazine article Management Today

The Sharp End: Inside the Glass Crucible

Article excerpt

At Pilkington's vast glassworks, Dave Waller has a window on the fiery processes.

I'm off to St Helens to visit Pilkington's glassworks. I know what sand is, and I'm familiar with glass, but I've no idea how you get from one to the other. I thought I'd state that from the start, in the interests of full transparency.

I arrive at 9.30 on a freezing morning to meet my guide, 17-year-old apprentice Scott Burrows, who kits me out with a Kevlar coat, hard-hat and safety glasses. It soon becomes apparent that my idea of the process is simplistic: I thought we'd be sitting on a craftsman's stool all day blowing that molten magic like a trumpet.

The reality is a bit more industrial. Scott will take me through the process. No photos, though - it's all top secret. We ascend in a clanky metal box to the top of the giant silo tower, nod at a team watching monitors, and grab a torch. I follow him up and down industrial staircases dusted in fine sand, we open manholes and peer into dark silos full of salt cake and sodium carbonate. 'You wouldn't want to fall in there,' says Scott.

Indeed. This would be the perfect setting for a Bond film, with chutes down to shard mountains and Escher-style conveyor belts carrying raw materials to the main building. Evil glass baron tries to take over the world, and 007 wrestles with him above a 1,600-degree furnace.

And what a furnace it is. 'Stand back,' Scott says, donning fireproof gloves and opening a little metal door. We peer in through the small, square hole; heat and fire rage past us. I hide behind a handheld wooden board, gazing through its window into the heart of the inferno. I'd never grasped the full horror of Hell till now.

The production line runs ceaselessly, 365 days a year, a continuous ribbon of glass floating on a river of molten tin. Every 12 years, there's a break for maintenance. We walk a metal platform beneath it, the heat sucking the moisture from my body. I hope the maintenance is up to scratch: it's a long trip back to London with your cords fused to your legs by 2,000 tons of molten glass.

Having chosen an apprenticeship over a career in the military, Scott is a couple of years in and clearly knows his stuff. …

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