Monday 6 March 2023

The Solenoid of the New Machine

What about the dignity of work? What about a fair distribution of the resources of society? What about Karl Marx: " Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? Where did that aspiration go horribly wrong? So many questions and I don't propose answers except in the very limited sense of the construction industry. It cannot be right that, by kneeling on floors all their working days, carpenters' knees are bursa burst by their mid-40s and they have to repurpose their lives for the last 20 years of their career. Ditto block-layers whose lower back pain kicks into cripple mode at about the same age.

We've come a long way in my working life: manual handling courses, knee-pads, gloves, safety visors, steel-cap boots, hard-hats were none of them fitted-as-standard when 16 y.o. me got my first job on a neighbouring farm. One morning, the farmer and his two labourers, went off sow spuds [a three-person, one tractor job] down on the field by the river. Rather than leave me completely idle, Mr Nichols the farmer handed me a chain-saw and invited me to saw a fallen beech tree into fire wood. In short order, as I cut through the recumbent trunk, the tree settled, seizing the saw in a vice-like grip. After half an hour ineffectually trying to release the saw, I got on my bike and cycled home for lunch. After lunch I was promoted to sitting on the back of the tractor, sowing spuds, while one of the two Effectives did something useful round the farm yard. There was no PPE available, or even considered, for the chain-saw!

What about Construction!? I was coming to that! In my day, construction was a hazardous industry. People were brained by falling spanners; or fell off the scaffolding; or wrenched their back lifting 4in solids - one in each meaty hand. The construction industry would like to cast these wretched disabled workers aside and replace them with younger models on a starting wage. Because modern construction is more about profit for investors and owners and less about worker safety and a durable product for the client. Celtic Tiger? Pyrite! Priory Hall! Planning!

My ears have just galloped through SAM: One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build By Jonathan Waldman; published by Simon & Schuster. SAM is a report in the lineage of The Soul of the New Machine [1981], in which Tracy Kidder told the story of the development, by Data General, of a new line of computers to go head-to-head with VAX/VMS machines produced by Digital Equipment Corporation. I was in graduate school just down the road in Boston when Kidder's book came out. It was brilliant as it set out to make the struggles and challenges of engineers [folks like me but smarter and better with their hands] into the stuff of legends. One of the tensions in the book is the interaction surface between the software engineers writing code and the hardware engineers brandishing soldering irons and tin-snips. The head of the project was Tom West, whose daughter <small world alert> is Jessamyn West the owner of Metafilter where I hang out for a large fraction of my para-social life. 

Watch SAM at work; while not broken down.

A soul solenoid is a device which converts electrical energy into mechanical work. The device of which we treat - SAM = Semi Automated Mason - lays bricks. You might think that this task would be amenable to automation: uniform material [bricks and mortar] which require repetitive, precise actions to achieve the desired product: walls. And that's true IF your wall is built in a warehouse or parking-lot and doesn't have windows, doors or corners. A key issue is the semi-automated: SAM can pick up a brick with its Stäubli robot arm, butter two sides with mortar and squidge it up against the last brick in the wall - rinse, repeat. In the artificial work-site of a parking lot, SAM can lay 2,000 bricks in a working day, without breaking sweat, dropping a brick or falling off the scaffolding. But it needs a real mason to wipe its cracks so that the pointing will pass muster when the foreman or architect comes to inspect the work. Absent corners and openings, on the straight-run bits of the job, SAM can power through course after course so long as bricks and mortar are supplied. It saves the heavy lift aspects of the masons labour [which is great for the human back]; and arguably lays bricks with more precision. 

SAM, the book, reads like a thriller. The development company, keeping a dozen engineers on salary, has a ferocious burn rate and needs to send prototypes out on actual jobs to get some profile and publicity in the industry. The poor machine has hardware and software problems and the bugs can only be ironed out as they manifest. It wouldn't be cutting edge if SAM worked straight off the drawing board and out of the box. The book ends with the company facing an uncertain future but having pioneered the field of construction robotics in actual terms rather than merely by adopting an inspirational name. 

Construction Robotics still has a website and is selling product. But it's marketing much more on MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) than on SAM. MULE keeps it simple, stupid by concentrating on lifting blocks rather than adding the complexity of buttering them with mortar. The Masons' Union is presumably delighted.

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