Monday, March 2, 2009

Luddite Dreams

I couple of posts back, I received the following comment, which I thought was worthy of addressing in a post unto itself:

"...reconsider the Hundegger. It does not cut perfect joinery, not even close. In the hands of a sharp designer and master timber framer it can offer up powerful work - no different than other tools that speed our work. Is it the right tool for every job? Absolutely not. I can cut joinery by hand that is tighter. Is it good at certain things? - absolutely. In a world where the master carpenter has migrated from roaming the countryside with his toolbox hiding from the rain under the eaves of his client to one where pressures of putting food on worker's tables, insurance, workers comp, etc., etc., drive the housing market as much as a client's desire to live in a masterwork - the master builder has become a shrewd businessman, technician, engineer, designer, and adapter of technology and tools to achieve all sorts of ends - from staying afloat to building works of art to live in. That all said, our tools define us as much as we define them. The challenge in all of these endeavors is to let the tools be tools - and let the mind and the heart do the designing - and the living."
(with a slight edit from me)

The commenter expresses himself well and thoughtfully, and I greatly value such input into this blog. Before I respond though, I suspect that many readers may well be wondering what the heck a Hundegger, an automated timber cutting machine, looks like. Well, here it is in all its glory:


Inside the 'tent', the machine features cutting heads like this:


These are fairly expensive machines, and it would not be unusual for a company to sink $250,000 into a machine like that - then add the forklift and other material handling equipment to facilitate feeding this machine with timber. The cutters are controlled by computer, thus a programmer is necessary. Companies that run machines like this have a higher burden of overhead, and thus in order to keep the costs of their product reasonable, the objective is through-put. Mass-production and assembly line manufacturing compensates for high overhead in tooling by producing in great quantities.

The role of people in a shop oriented around a machine like the Hundegger is confined to four basic areas:

1) Programming/product design
2) loading/unloading of material
3) maintenance/service/cleaning
4) sales/management

The Hundegger is really no different than the sorts of equipment one would find in any large factory - places making cars, woodworking machines, tvs, dishwashers, and so forth.

I like machines actually. I like tools in general - 'gear'. For me though, the Hundegger loses all attractiveness with the observation,

"It does not cut perfect joinery, not even close...I can cut joinery by hand that is tighter."

I am all for equipment that leads to greater precision in my woodwork, oriented as it is to solid wood joinery. Joinery, as I have mentioned previously, has integrity based largely on the quality of the joined connections. That the Hundegger, apparently can NOT cut 'perfect joinery - not even close" means that the machine must be designed around some other primary purpose. I would suspect that this purpose is to produce joinery quickly, and eliminate the variances typical in joinery cut by the human hand, especially in a shop where employees have varying degrees of skill in cutting joinery.

Reading between the lines somewhat, the commenter justifies such a machine due to a modern world in which, "pressures of putting food on worker's tables, insurance, workers comp. drive the housing market...", and further that these choices have to be made "to achieve all sorts of ends - from staying afloat to building works of art to live in".

These rationales are quite logical and, well, sound rather familiar. In fact, when I think about every arena in which mechanization has taken over, shoving the artisan to one side and marginalizing their craft and way of life, I have heard similar claims made. The critical shift in the move to a Hundegger, regardless of the justifications, it seems to me, is a move from the craftperson working the material by his hand and choice of tool, to one of a laborer feeding a machine, and efficiencies of labor division. In the former, the material is the subject of the craftsperson; in the latter, the laborer and the material are the subject of the machine. With a Hundegger, and machines like it, you are no longer working wood so much as you are working for a machine. And that machine, besides cheapening the work quality-wise, as noted above, also ultimately kills the craft that spawned it.

I've been reading a lot lately on the Luddites, a socio-political movement that happened in the early 1800's in parts of England. In modern parlance, the term 'Luddite' has come to be a term of derision for technophobes, hippies, back-to-the-landers, or as a synonym for futile resistance against the "inevitable march of civilization".

Well, the modern use of the word 'Luddite' is completely erroneous, as it does not describe the original Luddites at all. If I hear someone say that so-and-so is a 'Luddite', my next question is, "oh, do they hate technology or technological change?". If the answer to that is "yes", then the people under discussion may be a lot of things, but they certainly aren't Luddites at all. The Luddites embraced technology in fact, and many textile workers of that day had up-to-date quality machines (like looms) in their home shops. That's where they worked from - home. What the Luddites were against was not 'technology' or 'progress' as such- they were against the destruction of their way of life by the factory system, and the use of machines which cheapened the work, and allowed for unskilled labor to be used. New on the scene around the turn of the 19th century, the factory approach to production was destroying a proud craft of textile artisanry and turning it into a dumbed-down labor pit, where conditions of work were wretched and exploitative, and the skilled tradespeople were put out of work, to be replaced by un-skilled young women and children. These workers were locked inside 12~14 hours a day. The Luddites staged marches and engaged in industrial sabotage - destroying many loom frames. A few people were killed. The machines they destroyed however were specifically chosen - the machines that cheapened the work. Again, I repeat, the Luddites were not against technology.

Contrasted to today, the Luddites of that day have no exact corollary. The modern sense of technology as some sort of unstoppable machine, malignant to humanity, the 'Borg' for those of you familiar with the tv show Star Trek TNG - was not something on the minds of Luddites. Technology such as industrial production machinery, and later the assembly line were very new on the scene at that point, and in the 19th century there was growing public faith in the ideas of 'progress' and scientifically-based reasoning, which were thought to be leading to an improved utopian society. The horror of the First World War neatly shattered that illusion of course.

The Luddites were not environmentalists - though the Romantic movement in English literature at the time definitely sympathized with the Luddite cause, as have many in the modern envoronmental movement. I'll leave it to the interested reader to search out more information on the Luddite movement - there's plenty out there, both in the local library and on-line.

The seduction of machines like the Hundegger is pretty apparent, especially if one is frustrated by the inconsistencies of the work force, or one's own work, has means-to-an-end pragmatism, or is motivated by money more strongly than other factors. To give a similar example, the same lure of technology has long been dangled in front of the farmer, and today we have the scene of massive, economically rationalized, multi-thousand acre farms, where the farmhouses and hedges are merely in the way, and the normal sight these days is the lone operator driving the fields in an air-conditioned tractor, working a thousand arces at a go with the harvester or sprayer. The family farm has been largely destroyed.

Curtis K. Stanfield, in his book From the Land and Back: What Life was like on a Family Farm and How Technology Changed It (1972), compared the transition to industrialized farming with a war on the environment. He notes that the transition to the mechanized farming systems was so innocent,

"like the social revolution that came inevitably to the farm when isolation ended, the technological revolution was so sudden and complete that no one had time to consider what parts of it were good and which needed a place for the same reasons we go to the moon; we found out we could, and so we thought we must."

Interestingly, it was around 1972 that the US department of Agriculture revamped the farm subsidy system to encourage over-production, leading to crop surpluses, which was really the start of the homogenization of modern agri-business as we know it. Stanfield was already worried by what he was finding, and the apocalyptic changes in US farming practices had not even really begun to get going.

Stanfield also made the following comment based on his investigation and life-long observations, from the central Michigan area in which his father had farmed:

"It was soon apparent that in many cases the new combines or choppers, or field tillers were not being bought on the basis of calculated economics. A man with 20 acres of grain to harvest each year has no need for a combine of his own, when he can hire a man to do the work for him...Yet the farmer bought them, along with the big tractors to run them. For years, I thought they were simply bad managers, not aware of, or at least not making use of, simple management techniques. But now I see how alluring machinery is, simply in its nature. A man wanted his own combine, partly because it might give him a sense of independence, but also because it is a universal ego satisfaction to dominate a complicated machine."

An interesting film I saw recently on modern farming practice is King Corn, which certainly opened my eyes. I drove through the 'breadbasket' of the US last year, and I had no idea that those miles upon miles of corn fields were not growing corn for direct human consumption - almost all of it goes for either cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup. The corn grown in most fields is not actually edible to a human. All very rational, to a certain way of thinking.

I see the Hundegger in a similar light, as a destroyer of a proud craft tradition, one already heavily debased as it is. And while having such a machine may initially lead to greater productivity for a company, it's only a matter of time before economic imperatives drive their competitors to acquire similar machines, and then it becomes a race for through-put, which drives pricing. Down to the bottom we go. Bill's Woodproducts has a Weinig molder that can process 600 linear feet of material per hour; if John's Woodproducts gets a fancier molder that can do 1000 linear feet per hour, then they can underprice - the race is on! And when you're competing with machines, you are all producing a similar sort of product, and the natural process then is amalagamation, homogenization, the formation of pricing cartels and so forth. I mean, it's curious isn't it, that in this land of 'innovation' and 'enterprise', there are only three major auto makers. We all know what happens to upstarts in such a system. That's the direction the Hundegger points towards: giant factories, a big sales department, a few skilled programmers, and on the shop floor mostly unskilled labor, load and unloading, applying plastic wrap. I can see why such a system might be very appealing to a businessman, or someone who primarily designs, but for me, since I design AND build, I have to reject that path. Completely reject it.

In fact, I do not try and produce products that compete in any way against products produced by automated cutting machines. I like the subtlety of the hand-planed surface, the satisfaction of tight joinery with perfect structural integrity, and designs that are informed by more than simply a programming guide and tooling catalog. Let the mind and the heart do the designing, yes, but without the hand doing the making a vital connection is severered, and the stabilty of the creative tripod is lost. When I cut into the wood with a handsaw, or even my circular saw or router, I receive a lot of feedback about the material through the tool - all this is lost in an automated machine. With a Hundegger, wood is simply a commodity to be shoved through the machine, the more the better. Logging is rapidly becoming automated, dimensional lumber production is automated, and now the proposition the Hundegger represents, is to turn the craft of timber framing into an automated process. What of the human - what of the craftsperson deriving satisfaction from his work? What of the logger who might have reverence for the act of cutting down the tree in light of the switch to machine operators running feller-bunchers? It's the same dehumanization. The further you remove a person from intimacy with process and material, the easier it becomes to exploit. Same in warfare, same in agriculture, same in logging, and same in making things from wood. Once the wedge of disconnection is pushed in, the split begins, and the craftsperson is marginalized, skills are lost, material becomes commodity for exploitation. In time the forests are turned into mere woodlots, the trees planted in neat rows to facillitate fertilizing, pruning and harvest, the workers merely a cog, low in skill and easily replaced. It's the industrialist's wildest dream - maybe reality, unfortunately. Perhaps, if computer A.I. becomes a reality, then the programmers can all be replaced too, and hello, 'Matrix'.

The comment that the Hundegger is, "no different than other tools that speed our work", I must reject the notion that all tools are alike. The Hundegger isn't equivalent to other carpentry tools. While technology can be argued to be neutral, the ends to which we put technology are not so neutral. Tools give capacity, and the results of that, down the line, vary widely in effect. A person with an axe and horse-drawn cart can chop in a frenzy all day long and won't even touch what the operator in the feller buncher can do in minutes in terms of laying waste to the forest. And, if a technology appears that allows a certain thing to be be done, more easily or cheaply, human nature is definitely likely to lead us into doing it, as temptation is awfully hard to resist, and short term gain at the expense of the long view is status quo in modern culture. Greed is easily justified in such a system.

I think we must be like the wise martial artist, with skills and conditioning (the tools) to kill, yet who can keep the sword sheathed in almost all circumstances, quietly confident about their abilities and wise enough not to be easily tempted into using their weapons. I think as humans that our technolgical savvy in many cases has greatly overreached our metal ability to envision the downstream effects of our choices. It's like we are trying to run the latest software in a chassis designed in the stone age.

Finally, the commenter wrote, "our tools define us as much as we define them". I agree - that's my point exactly with the Hundegger and machines like it. The Hundegger defines a way of work and of relating to material that is competely at odds with my personal direction. If the hundegger could produce a greater variety of joints, and most especially, better joints than I could do by other means, then I might have a certain interest. Since that's not the case, and I can see the path to which the Hundegger points, I can say, after much consideration, no thanks.

6 comments:

  1. And it makes you wonder whether the machines are "really" more cost effective. $250,000 for the machine plus the annual cost of the facility, maintenance, the programmer's, marketing/sales, unskilled laborers salaries, shipping the wood to the facility and then again to the building site vs the salaries of enough skilled craftsmen (less than all the above?) who do their own programming (and perhaps design), can produce joinery with more "integrity", never break down (one of the crew might be off sick or on vacation, but the work can be carried on by the rest) and the wood shipped straight to the site (in some cases if not all). Apprentices learning the craft would be no problem as knowing one can actually make a living using their heads and their hands would continue to attract new blood.
    I know I'm preaching to the choir, but it would make an interesting side by side cost comparison.

    Steve

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  2. Chris -

    I wrote a long reply only to have Blogger foul it up. Your preview / comment section has acted sporadically for me each time I post.

    I think your concept of how CNC shop operates is woefully simplified. Yes, there are CNC shops that are only interested in loading materials with a forklift and putting them on a truck to the jobsite... but there are companies making good use of the machine to work in a design / build - master builder tradition... from experience cleaning barn timber mortises of cow shit, to restoring ancient timbers to be re-used, to cutting joinery by hand and machine in a mill rule shop, to scribing saplings on a lake with hand tools, to operating and programming a Hundegger, to detailing the imperfect joinery it cuts (no machine or tool cuts perfect joinery - but the timber framer who wields it attempts to) - and now working on the design end of things - the machine has always gotten a bad rap. Its not what it seems from the outside - there is plenty of soul, good, and timber jujitsu going on in varying levels in a shop that wields a CNC or a broad axe.

    More later... when I can get it all out.

    -Mike

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  3. Steve,

    I have only come across one such price comparison (though I haven't been searching for such things), in Timber Framing Journal #52 (June 1999), where timber framer Collin Beggs from New York wrote in to describe his experiences working in both a Hundegger-based shop and another which used traditional tools. It is most edifying. I note at the end he does a financial comparison between the products of the two approaches, building a structure in the form of a Dutch Barn, 40' x 44'. From the tradtional timber frame company, "Price was $50,000. The Hundegger-oriented company, frame the same except with machined surfaces and joinery. Price $60,000."

    That's a very narrow sample of course, but the fact remains that overhead must be paid for by the job, and those machines, and their tooling are expensive, and i wonder if at the point the machine is paid off, how much useful life it may have left (one of the issues in the Woodmizer sawyer business).

    ~Chris

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  4. Mike,

    sorry to hear about your hassles posting a comment. Hopefully that won't plague you too often. I look forward to reading your defense of the machine and to learning new things to correct my woeful simplifications, as you call them. Keep in mind, sometimes I have to simplify discussion here in the interests of brevity, and also that my critique wasn't directed at you personally.

    By the way, was it a rewarding job, "detailing the imperfect joinery" of the Hundegger? I ask because Collin Beggs, mentioned in my comment above, described such work as follows:

    "The inaccuracy may be remediable in the machine, but what affected me most was the demoralization of the timber framer whose hands are in physical contact with the wood...cleaning up for a Hundegger does not take a skilled craftsman. I would compare the task to pulling nails out of boards. If you doubt my sincerity, I recommend you square up mortises and chisel 45˚ brace pocket angles in the timbers from one of these machines, and then ask yourself if this is what you want to spend your days doing, and if the work is beneficial to the craft and community."

    I sure know the answer to that question for myself.


    ~Chris

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  5. Chris -

    We need to move this to a pub over a few local brews. I could write and write and write about this, as you can too...

    Specifically about my experiences at the shop referenced in Mr. Beggs article:

    I arrived at the same shop Mr. Beggs worked and I assume it was shortly after his departure. Life in a CNC shop is not filled with endless corner chiseling of round holes - no more than it would be in a traditional shop with routers, chain mortisers, and large circular saws. The main thing removed is the 'roughing' part, as the machine is a great rough framing tool... (I'll stop there and save it for a pub, as this needs face time to discuss and discuss).

    Never did I feel I was in a timber frame sweatshop (except in the summer, when the humidity was high and the kilns were running full tilt...)

    The company in question actually has anywhere from 10-14 skilled timber framers on the floor, out on a raising, running the CNC, doing compound roof layout and joinery (by hand! the machine is only so good), dismantling and restoring and old barn for reuse, or hand scribing 'as found' industrial salvage timbers for a new frame, etc. etc. Figure 4 'master' timber framers, 4 journeymen, and 4 apprentices. The only unskilled labor is the occassional high school student who works summers.

    In addition it has a full complement of woodworkers in a separate shop that often follow a frame with custom cabinetry, stairs, furniture, and doors. Front loading all of this is a full architectural design staff for 2-3 full GC 'design / builds' a year, a TF engineering and design department (which I previously managed) to coordinate sales (the design / engineering group does most of the selling at this firm - we long ago fired the sales team mainly becuase most of the designers / engineers have spent time either on the floor in the shop or come from a woodworking or carpentry background, and the 'salesmen' were just that), design, material acquisition, hardware, custom steel, etc. etc.

    Don't forget another 8-12 folks who run the enclosures and carpentry group - and take on everything from SIPs (used where they make sense) to a custom built exterior wall system, to rough framing interiors, setting windows and doors, etc. etc.

    Add in a few office staff - finance, marketing and web stuff, a receptionist - and you have a tidy little company that pays honest wages, offers great benefits (fantastic benefits for the area) and gives plenty back to its community. (and now you can add another 'machine', shop, and smaller timber frame crew to a west coast office...

    Does 'the machine' make it possible? Not at all. The people involved do. The 'machine' is just that - a part of the system, a tool. It slices, it dices, it makes little pieces of wood out of big pieces of wood - but it doesn't sell a vision, it doesn't inspire clients, it doesn't do much of anything unless its told to. Could the same volume be done with the same crew? Doubtful. Would the company be able to support 45+ good paying jobs in an area of the state that has seen jobs leaving for the last 10 years without the volume of sales? No. But whats the point? Would it be better to have 10 4.5 man and woman shops all within the same local area - fighting for the work - and all needing to pay premiums on health insurance, attempt to pay into retirement funds, cover worker's comp, etc. etc.? Maybe if there were truly a 'guild' system in place - but guilds were typically just as secretive and competitive as today's 'coroporations'. I could see future where we return to true cottage industries

    As to pricing in regards to the single data point refereneced - the particular company pays above average wages, with above average benefits - that costs $$ and influences the bottom line and the price it charges for its work. It has overhead, no doubt - higher than some folks with a pick up truck, some nail guns, a cell phone, Yahoo email account, and a chain mortiser or two. In my experience the race to the bottom doesn't run through a good timber frame shop - CNC or not. It often runs through a client who wants more house than they can afford - and are willing to find the cheapest everything to place in that hollow and soulless shell.

    There have been many occasions where said company was underbid by someone that was hungry for the work, or had better access in a schedule, or knew the sister-in-law of the architect's old college roomie. Most work though has come through word of mouth - clients seeking out said company because of a reputation of customer service and providing a quality product while carrying on with a quality company.

    That's it for now. More on the 'machine' at a later date, or over beers.
    Cheers,
    Mike

    PS - I cut my teeth in a traditional shop, learning square rule and working with hand and limited power tools for a guy in Ohio name Rudy. To learn more I moved on to dismantle and restore some wonderful barns in the PA, MD, and NJ area. Then on to do my own limited timber frame and woodworking, before falling into a position at the company mentioned above. Working through the shop I ran 'the machine', programmed it on the weekends to make it do things it didn't think it could, carved sculpture with it, and eventually got kicked out of the shop and up to the design and engineering group. I even was fascinated with the idea of the Luddite - and attempted to carve a sabot on the machine...

    Upon the end of a personal relationship and a bit of burnout on the engineering side of things I moved on and hand cut a frame in my shop for a friend (hand and power tools) and moved to VT. I've since jumped back into doing 3d consulting for various companies (SIPs manufacturer, builders, timber frame shops) and for a good while managed design and sales consulting for the Northeast for said company. I now work part time for a host of folks, including the company mentioned above - and I try to spend my non work time as primary care for our little one...

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  6. Mike,

    thanks so much for taking the time to post a thoughtful and detailed response. I *just* noticed that you had double-posted, and only published your first comment - and now note that your second had a little extra commentary, so sorry about that. Now it's published I can't change anything.

    Incidentally, on a whim I phoned up Collin Beggs tonight and had a nice chat about his letter to the Journal from 10 years back, and stuff like that, and asked him to have a read here. Maybe he'll post something who knows?

    I hope you keep reading my blog and can tolerate my assails against much of modern practice in the industry. More to come in that regard! Maybe we'll have that beer one day too.

    ~Chris

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