the Carpentry Way: Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (VII)                                                          

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (VII)

Amazingly, nearly a month has passed since the last installment in this series. It's time! My apologies for the less than regular posts in this thread.

In the last post on the topic of CNC and automation, I delved into, admittedly without great depth, the historic and social underpinnings of the development of automation in US manufacturing. At the close, I mentioned the great concern in US manufacturing since the days of Fredrick Taylor's Scientific Management: who's running the shop? Particularly in the arena of the machine tool industry, the person who operated the machinery controlled the rate of production in the shop, and 'soldiering', the deliberate pacing of production by the tool operators was a thorn in the side of management.

As industries grew larger and more 'rationally' managed, particularly following the upsurge in US manufacturing in world War II, and in particular, given the post-war development of new types of aircraft which required complex parts made to very high degrees of accuracy, Numerical-Control (NC)-cutting and forming machinery came to be seen as a necessity. The Air Force's own specifications for the products explicitly demanded their use.

Now there were two directions that this new technology might have taken. One was NC. Another was to use automated control systems as an augment to the skilled work of established craftspeople. This is the 'road not taken', which happens to also be the title of a chapter in David Noble's 1984 work Forces of Production.

An alternative system to NC was called Record-Playback, or R/P. To grasp the essential difference between NC and R/P, one can consider two examples: the Jacquard Loom, which used punch card technology to operate weaving looms; and the player piano, which seems superficially similar to the loom in terms of operating system, using a punched roll of paper instead of cards.

In the card-directed loom, we have essentially a digital, binary system, the punched holes in the card serving as go/no go controls for pins to pass through, or not. If the pin could pass through the card, it lined up with a wire to be lifted, with which a thread was lifted. To change the pattern, the card only need be changed out. The operator's task remained, however, unchanged, and, more to the point, the weaver's work, in the absence of any automated control, was seen only as a straightforward operation, easily replaced by the card. The weavers' skill set was, in short, devalued. The cards were produced by specialists, not weavers. Weavers acted to load and unload the machines, and change the cards.

The player piano, though using a punched card form of operating system, was designed around an entirely different philosophy of use. Those pianos make use of a device called a melograph, a device invented in the 18th century which recorded the fingering of a musician at a keyboard as marks on paper. Here's a somewhat amusing clipping describing the device from an 1887 edition of The New York Times:

Accusations have been leveled at machine based technologies, as debasers of human skill, for a long time, haven't they?

The melograph was adapted so as to employ pneumatic card punching of paper rolls, and these rolls were then incorporated into pianos. As the roll plays, the keys on the piano are activated in 'perfect' reproduction of the piece originally recorded by the melograph. Maybe not so perfect in practice though, as noted by Noble:

"But, in other ways, the melograph reproductions fell far short of human capabilities. Piano rolls generated notes rather than music, since they did not reproduce the subtleties of phrasing and dynamics. "At its best," one leading historian of player pianos observed, the music produced "was unequal to the efforts of an inebriated pianist on a much misused upright in the public bar." Thus, before long, player pianos were equipped with "manual expression controls," which enabled the operator of the roll-actuated piano to add his own dynamics and interpretations, while sparing him the need for digital dexterity."

The key difference between the player piano and automated loom technologies was that the player piano was based upon the real life skill of a musician. The player was not intended to eliminate that skill altogether, but to reproduce it as faithfully as possible, in order to multiply, magnify, or extend its range. It multiplies the skill of one musician and reduces the need for such skills on the part of other musicians.

R/P programming systems for machine tool operation were much the same as the player piano system - designed here to record the movements of a skilled operator fabricating a piece on a special machine, like a lathe or milling machine, designed to transmit the machinist's moves into a storage medium:

"The program was made, therefore, by "capturing" on tape the motions of a machine as it was put though its paces by a machinist, whose skill was thereby "captured" in the process. Here, as with conventional machining, the machinist interpreted the blueprint instructions and process sheets and manually made a first part (using a tracer stylus attachment to produce contours, if necessary). The program, therefore, was a record not only of the machine (and stylus) motions but also of the machinist's intelligence, skill, tacit knowledge, and judgment, which were embodied in those motions. Rather than viewing the possibility of human intervention cynically, as merely the chance for "human error," this approach viewed it positively, as the opportunity for human judgment, skill, and creativity. Reliant upon shop floor experience and cooperation, it was, by definition, limited to the capabilities of human machinists (and, thus, to more than 90% of metalworking applications)."

Once the copy was made of the skilled machinist's operation, that could then be used to actuate production machines, be they lathes or milling machines, etc., without the operator required to do much more than load, unload, and keep an eye on things. Just like a player piano.

Machinery was prototyped using R/P systems by large industrial concerns with specializations in electrical engineering, as these developments depended upon programmable magnetic tape systems, not punched paper. General Electric, in their laboratory in Schenectady, New York was one of the leading developers. Interestingly, there's a sort of a connection between GE and player pianos - a certain Kurt Vonnegut worked as a PR hack for GE in the late 1940's. Out of that experience, he wrote his first novel, with the title Player Piano in 1952. In a 1973 Playboy interview where he was asked about that work, Vonnegut stated:

"I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brancusi forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. "Player Piano" was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn't a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs." (emphasis mine)

Very insightful and prescient. Here's a brief excerpt from the novel:

"Strange business, this crusading spirit of the managers and engineers, the idea of designing and manufacturing and distributing being sort of a holy war; all that folklore was cooked up by public relations and advertising men hired by managers and engineers to make big business popular in the old days, which it certainly wasn't in the beginning. Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forbears hired people to say about them. Yesterday's snow job becomes today's sermon."

Hmm. I think that may be worth a read. More information on the rising influence and history of the managerial and engineering fields, BTW, can be found in Noble's earlier work America by Design, which I'm working my way through currently.

Make no mistake, the purpose of R/P technology was first and foremost the reduction in skill required for production. Noble again:

"The new technology...could serve as a "multiplier for the few outstanding machinists," thereby making possible the hiring of less skilled and hence cheaper machine operators - "an advantage," Orrin Livingston pointed out, "not to be underestimated."

R/P also offered other benefits:
Sounds great - so why didn't R/P technology develop further? There was a confluence of factors, but the most significant, according to Noble, was the fact that the operators still largely controlled production:

""With record-playback", Earl Troup pointed out, "the control of the machine remains with the machinist - control of feeds, speeds, number of cuts, output. Thus, management is dependent upon operators and can't optimize the use of their machines." John Dutcher agreed. He had already designed an automatic machine for grinding steel rolls, at the request of the Bethlehem Steel Company. "Bethlehem came to us," he later recalled, "complaining that operators were controlling production, determining the output - say, only eight finished rolls a day, no matter what." The steel company wanted GE to design an automated system that would give management control over output to increase it and at the same time eliminate worker "stints" (the worker-determined quota) and "pacing" (Worker-determined production rate), and Dutcher and his colleagues obliged."

Also, workers' regardless of how skilled they might be, were considered, at least by management, as 'only human' and that the work which was being patterned would be imperfect in some way, and performed more slowly than it could be done in terms of the cutting capacity of the tooling.

With the advent of NC technology, R/P was put on the shelf at GE, and stayed there to collect dust:

"Management liked numerical control better," Orrin Livingston, the consultant engineer who first thought of the phase-shift approach, recalled later. "It meant they could sit in their offices, write down what they wanted, and give it to someone and say, 'do it.'...With numerical control, there was no need to get your hands dirty or argue." Earl Troup, of the Industrial Applications Group, concurred. "With record-playback, the control of the machine remains with the machinist.... With numerical control, there is a shift of control to management. The control of the machine was placed in the hands of management - and why shouldn't we have control over it?"

Why not?, indeed. Management's perspective makes good sense, and I understand it perfectly. And the unions really didn't do much to help themselves either during this period. The belief in 'progress', having been well established culturally, along with a certain tendency towards technophilia on the part of those who operate machines, sloped the playing field for starters. Then, a decision within union management to position the unions as welcoming and supporting of technological advances, and to place union attention on contending with management in regards to hours of work, collective bargaining, grievances, wages, seniority, and so forth, ultimately allowed the unions to place themselves in a weak position, check and mate. The technology overran them, making vast numbers of workers obsolete.

At the United Auto Workers (UAW) convention of 1955, the union issued an unprecedented resolution on automation:

"The UAW-CIO welcomes automation, technological progress...We offer our a common search for policies and programs...that will ensure the greater technological progress will result in greater human progress. This goal will not be achieved, however, if we put our trust in luck or blind economic forces. We can be certain of recognizing the great promise for good and averting the dangers that would result from irresponsible use of the new technology only if we consciously and constructively plan to utilize automation for human betterment. We cannot afford to hypnotize ourselves into passivity with monotonous repetition of the comforting thought, that in the long run, the economy will adjust to labor displacement and disruption which could result from the Second Industrial Revolution as it did from the First."

Well, they did hypnotize themselves in a certain respect, which was that belief in 'progress', as something 'inevitable', even 'unstoppable', and something to which they could not be seen to be in opposition. The Luddites, by contrast, had suffered from no such inculcation of belief and when confronted with the threat of factory machine work dumbing down their trade and destroying their way of life, they responded in a direct manner by destroying the specific machines which accomplished that effect. Technology was not 'neutral' in their eyes, and they were themselves savvy users of technology. I've written about the Luddites in past posts at some length.

The trade unions of the post war period, in losing sight of the forest for the trees, if I can call it that, or ignoring the elephant in the room perhaps, focused their energies on matters which were really peripheral in import compared to the advent of automation. And with every strike, grievance and labor disruption, they gave management another reason to move towards the automation of production.

NC, and the later CNC which developed out of it, did not actually accomplish production cost reductions for the most part, but rather cemented control of production more firmly in the hands of management.

With more and more skilled workers being replaced or de-skilled by automated equipment, and little to no investment by big business in apprenticeship training, a new problem arises: a skilled labor shortage. The answer to this problem by industry? More automation. I'll look at some of the outcomes of this sea-change shift to automation in the next post, before returning to a more personal consideration of the role of CNC-equipment in the woodworking realm.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today.