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Monthly archives for March, 2010
I recently went to work for a week in a factory in the suburbs of Detroit, programming industrial robots for car manufacturers. The factory itself wasn’t owned by one of the carmakers, it was one of the thousands of plants in Michigan that exists to make products for the auto industry. This one made parts for the assembly lines in car factories, and from the look of things, business wasn’t doing so well.
It’s my first day in the plant, about twenty of the guys on the shop floor are assembling The Flipper, a 20-foot tall behemoth machine covered in day-glo orange safety paint, squatting sullenly in a puddle of hydraulic fluid. The Flipper takes in heavy car parts like a door or body panel, flips them over, and shoots them out the other end. The workers are wrestling the machine’s parts into place, connecting cables and fluid and everything else a giant honking machine needs.
A few days later, I’m standing on the shop floor when a factory engineer comes bursting out of the office cubicles. The engineer is himself a huge man, towering a good half a foot over me, and he’s striding across the floor with the resolve and momentum of a charging elephant, pausing briefly to snatch a blueprint for the Flipper from a toolchest. Every inch of this man screams fury–not just fury, but red-faced apoplectic shiteating rage. Neck veins bulging, he marches up to the shop foreman, shakes the blueprint in his face, and pointing at the Flipper, turns the blueprint upside-down.
And the shouting begins. The engineer bellows at the foreman and the workers, who are standing dumbly around and on top of the Flipper, shuffling their feet. What the fuck are you thinking, who the fuck is so fucking stupid to fucking put a fucking… The foreman starts shouting back at the engineer about how the fuck’s it his fault, you can’t tell a fucking thing from the drawing. After ten minutes of bellowing, the engineer stomps back to his cubicle and the workers start yelling at one another. Then the factory owner, another huge man comes stomping onto the floor and yells at anyone within eyesight, stopping only when he’s overtaken by a coughing fit. Half an hour later, everyone returns to work, breathing slightly heavier than normal. “Jesus,” I think, “what an awful way to exist.”
The next day it happens again, but this time it’s directed at the group I’m working with. We’re programming a robot to follow a line of colored tape on the factory floor, and while it’s following the line, it’s wobbling back and forth as it does. One of the engineers, a huge bearded man who designs industrial machinery, watches our robot as we put it through its paces. Looking at his face, it’s clear that an internal storm’s brewing. And then it unleashes.
Why the fuck isn’t this robot going straight? Your fucking robot’s fucking wobbling all over the fucking place. It fucking needs to work, and it’s NOT FUCKING WORKING! He’s stomping up and down the shop floor, shouting hard enough that the air in front of him is visibly distorted. He’s not really listening for a response, so we take cover in an office looking out onto the shop floor, and we see him stomp red-faced past the window for fifteen minutes, his unanswered bellows echoing off the factory walls. When we step back out on the floor a few minutes later, he’s grasping a metal ramp that our robot drives on and is ripping it out of the floor.
While I was working in the factory, I wrote this off, blaming it on the personalities I was around, thinking it was a Michigan thing, or that these guys were just hicks or pissy or that this was just how they were. It wasn’t until I was telling this exact story a week later back in Boston that I realized the extent of the anger, the stress, the raw emotion I had witnessed, and I know without a doubt that it’s not normal. People can’t function like this; the stress alone will kill you in a few years. I wasn’t seeing the effects of ego or a pissing contest–what I was seeing was raw fear.
In a city with 50% unemployment, in a factory that exists to serve the expansion of a dying business, every one of the workers knows that it doesn’t take much for their company to go under, and if it does–well, there’s nobody else hiring. Any little thing going wrong can start in motion a chain of events that forces everybody at the plant to go move to another city in search of work.
What I witnessed was the very human reaction to that knowledge. Everyone at this company is living in dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop. These are capable, talented men locked in a structure that’s too rigid, too dated, too tangled in industry hierarchy to save itself. Everyone in the factory knows this, and they’re working through it, consumed with fear and anger, because there’s nothing else they can do.
This is the human aspect of America’s failure to figure out manufacturing, and you know what? It fucking sucks.