A lesson from Japan: Turbine failure turns lessons into successes

Nagasaki may be known to the outside world mainly as a target for the second nuclear bomb attack by the U.S., but it also holds a key role as a centerpiece of the electric power turbine industry

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Nagasaki may be known to the outside world mainly as a target for the second nuclear bomb attack by the U.S., but it also holds a key role as a centerpiece of the electric power turbine industry.

I had the honor of visiting Japan as a guest of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries recently. We toured shipyards, turbine and turbocharger assembly plants and places where divisions of MHI make airplanes to move travelers regionally and rockets to take satellites into space. It is an impressive array covering many industrial bases.

Nagasaki is a beautiful place, probably my favorite thing I saw in Japan. Hills rise majestically from the shores of the bay, while cruise ships and cranes hover usefully as part of the daily scene there.

Factories also dot the eye-catching landscape, where the joint venture Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems makes steam turbines, boilers and control technologies for the power plant sector. The Nagasaki Works is one of MHPS’ key operations—busy with construction, assembly, machining and testing to ensure cutting-edge, efficient and safe power generation.

Perhaps to remind itself of the perils of failure, not too far from the works is the Mitsubishi museum honoring the company’s proud tradition in shipping, manufacturing and power. The first thing you might notice is an 8-foot statue of founder Yataro Iwasaki, an already impressive, mustachioed industrial warrior who took over the shipyard and helped build the company into the worldwide colossus it is today.

Only a short stroll from that victorious opening is where failure takes center stage. A decades-old turbine with melted, shredded blades and rotors sits where no one can miss it. It is a curiosity, for sure, but also something deeper.

“It is there as an admonishment,” said our tour guide pointedly.

The malfunction which destroyed the turbine also took four lives many years ago. The tragedy is largely forgotten by history, but Mitsubishi places it there both as an artifact and a reminder. Safety is never forgotten.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems has built hundreds of gas and steam turbines in use all over the world. Its M501J was recently put into operation at the Grand River Dam Authority combined-cycle plant in eastern Oklahoma near where I live.

Last week, MPHS introduced its even more highly efficient JAC gas turbine series. Like many companies, the products get better by learning from each preceding generation’s successes and failures.

Success stories abound focused on MHPS’ high-efficiency power-generation equipment, but the company saw fit to highlight a broken failure at the center of where it also honors its nearly 150-year history.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” another titan of electric power, Thomas Edison, is quoted as saying. He was talking about lightbulbs, but the adage applies to everything.

The Mitsubishi group covers a lot of companies in Japan, many of which are autonomous of each other. One of those, Mitsubishi Materials Co., recently admitted that it had reported fake quality data and vowed to correct the mistakes.

The cover-up is nothing new in the business world, with similar fudging having happened at Kobe Steel and Volkswagen in recent years and, on an extreme level, Enron in the United States.

When asked about the data scandal at the materials company, MHI CEO Shunichi Miyanaga expressed disappointment and resolve to make sure the infractions didn’t impact his company.

“I feel very sorry. They should have told us,” Miyanaga said. “Transparency is the most important thing.”

For all the right ways that Mitsubishi and other companies now try to perfect their power generation products, there are always dead ends and outright mistakes. Sometimes they are their fault, sometimes not. Some are fatal, most are not.

And yet everything bad that happens teaches something potentially going forward. Perhaps the lesson is not to hide our failures nor to celebrate them, but instead hold them out as landmarks on the journey to getting better. Never forget.

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