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How PA capitalists saved the Chilean miners

The WSJ’s consistently awesome Daniel Henninger has a must read column in Thursday’s edition. I quote at length, because there is much awesomeness to behold:

It needs to be said. The rescue of the Chilean miners is a smashing victory for free-market capitalism.

Amid the boundless human joy of the miners’ liberation, it may seem churlish to make such a claim. It is churlish. These are churlish times, and the stakes are high.

In the United States, with 9.6% unemployment, a notably angry electorate will go to the polls shortly and dump one political party in favor of the other, on which no love is lost. The president of the U.S. is campaigning across the country making this statement at nearly every stop:

“The basic idea is that if we put our blind faith in the market and we let corporations do whatever they want and we leave everybody else to fend for themselves, then America somehow automatically is going to grow and prosper.”

Uh, yeah. That’s a caricature of the basic idea, but basically that’s right. Ask the miners.

If those miners had been trapped a half-mile down like this 25 years ago anywhere on earth, they would be dead. What happened over the past 25 years that meant the difference between life and death for those men?

Short answer: the Center Rock drill bit.

This is the miracle bit that drilled down to the trapped miners. Center Rock Inc. is a private company in Berlin, Pa. It has 74 employees. The drill’s rig came from Schramm Inc. in West Chester, Pa. Seeing the disaster, Center Rock’s president, Brandon Fisher, called the Chileans to offer his drill. Chile accepted. The miners are alive.

Longer answer: The Center Rock drill, heretofore not featured on websites like Engadget or Gizmodo, is in fact a piece of tough technology developed by a small company in it for the money, for profit. That’s why they innovated down-the-hole hammer drilling. If they make money, they can do more innovation.

This profit = innovation dynamic was everywhere at that Chilean mine. The high-strength cable winding around the big wheel atop that simple rig is from Germany. Japan supplied the super-flexible, fiber-optic communications cable that linked the miners to the world above.

Center Rock’s website boasts the refreshing American slogan: “Center Rock Inc. Drill harder. Run Faster. Work smarter.”

Center Rock Inc. was founded in 1998 by Brandon W. Fisher at the age of 26. After graduating from Berlin High School in 1990, Brandon took some college classes, got a taste of the drilling industry and in a very short period of time, he was hooked! Brandon worked for one of Ingersoll Rand’s distributors as the company’s Eastern Oil & Gas sales Representative, working in the field with new and existing products before deciding to venture out on his own, searching for ways to improve the existing products. This young entrepreneur recognized the need for a manufacturing company that was reactive to customer needs, with innovative products and round-the-clock customer service and support.

This young Pennsylvania entrepreneur has been on site in Chile supervising the drilling operations:

Brandon Fisher, whose American company built the drills, said that the pneumatic-based drilling system that bored the rescue shaft hole used four hammers instead of just one – similar to the drill that Center Rock used to initially reach the miners with a 12” pilot hole.

Center Rock’s drilling expertise was called upon by industry experts and Chile to drill this rescue bore hole for the 33 miners who were trapped during a cave-in on August 5th. The first small bore hole that reached the miners 17 days after the mine collapse brought news to the world they were alive 2,070 feet below the surface. Rescuers have been sending food, medicine and letters through a small pipe to the miners, as well as video cameras so the miners can communicate with their families.

Schramm Inc. is the other Pennsylvania innovator working to free the miners:

Founded in 1900 by Chris Schramm, Schramm, Inc. is a closely held, privately owned Pennsylvania corporation that originally manufactured engine driven machinery and portable air compressors. In the 1950’s Schramm pioneered air flush drilling and in the 1970’s focused engineering and manufacturing operations on production of top head drive mobile drilling equipment.

Today, Schramm is a century-old Chester County, Pennsylvania manufacturer and global supplier to the hydraulic drilling industry progressively improving the function and quality of our products to provide world class performance and reliability.

Henninger highlights the critical importance of small business risk-taking entrepreneurs like these:

In an open economy, you will never know what is out there on the leading developmental edge of this or that industry. But the reality behind the miracles is the same: Someone innovates something useful, makes money from it, and re-innovates, or someone else trumps their innovation. Most of the time, no one notices. All it does is create jobs, wealth and well-being. But without this system running in the background, without the year-over-year progress embedded in these capitalist innovations, those trapped miners would be dead.

Some will recoil at these triumphalist claims for free-market capitalism. Why make them now?

Here’s why. When a catastrophe like this occurs—others that come to mind are the BP well blowout, Hurricane Katrina, various disasters in China—a government has all its chips pushed to the center of the table. Chile succeeds (it rebuilt after the February earthquake with phenomenal speed). China flounders. Two American administrations left the public agog as they stumbled through the mess.

Still, what the political class understands is that all such disasters wash away eventually, and that life in a developed nation reverts to a tolerable norm. If the Obama administration refuses to complete free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, no big deal. It’s only politics.

But that’s not true. Getting a nation’s economics right is more important than at any time since the end of World War II. Chile, Colombia, Peru and Brazil are pulling away from the rest of their hapless South American neighbors. China, India and others are simply copying or buying the West’s accomplishments.

The U.S. has a government led by a mindset obsessed with 250K-a-year “millionaires” and given to mocking “our blind faith in the market.” In a fast-moving world filled with nations intent on catching up with or passing us, this policy path is a waste of time.

The miners’ rescue is a thrilling moment for Chile, an imprimatur on its rising status. But I’m thinking of that 74-person outfit in Berlin, Pa., whose high-tech drill bit opened the earth to free them. You know there are tens of thousands of stories like this in the U.S., as big as Google and small as Center Rock. I’m glad one of them helped save the Chileans. What’s needed now is a new American economic model that lets our innovators rescue the rest of us.

It is a joyful night for the thirty-three miners who survived some 70 days in a collapsed mine and who should by all rights be dead. And it is with great pride that I can report that Pennsylvania innovators played a critical role in the worldwide drama.

Well done, gentlemen. Well done.

October 13, 2010 at 9:00 pm
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